Senior drivers get a bad rap. They're thought of as slow, dangerous traffic cloggers who don't look where they're going and back into things in parking lots.

In fact, statistics show drivers over the age of 55 are some of the safest on the road. While young drivers are known for risky behaviour, older drivers are less likely to speed, less likely to drink and drive and more likely to follow the rules of the road. When they do crash, they are more likely to hurt only themselves and their cars rather than anyone else.

But the rosy picture of senior drivers changes once they hit age 75. That's when their collision-per-kilometre-driven rate becomes more like that of novice drivers. So even though older seniors tend to drive less often, their crash rate is relatively high.

The kinds of traffic accidents older drivers are most likely to have include:

  • merging and failure-to-yield crashes
  • side-impact crashes, especially when turning left across the traffic flow
  • crashes caused by a traffic violation, such as failing to notice a stop sign
  • run-off-the-road crashes

Failure-to-yield crashes are by far the most common. According to studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in the U.S., in these kinds of crashes, drivers over the age of 80 tend to say that they never saw the other car coming. Drivers aged 70-79 on the other hand, are more likely to see the car, but misjudge how much time they had to proceed.

Seniors often have physical challenges that compromise their driving, such as reduced mobility, reduced strength, slower reaction time, and diminished hearing. But their perception also changes as their peripheral vision narrows and their depth perception -- the ability to judge how fast other cars are moving -- declines.

Seniors lose elasticity in their eye muscles, too, so while a younger driver needs only about two seconds to adjust their focus from the speedometer to the road ahead, older drivers can take much longer. They also don't do as well at night because the lenses in their eyes grow thicker, making them sensitive to glare.

Thomas Broberg, a senior engineer for Volvo, has researched the difference in older drivers' skills at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI) in Link�ping using specially-equipped cars and cameras that monitor drivers' eye movements.

"We wanted to evaluate to what degree the visual behaviour could explain older drivers' involvement in intersection accidents," he explains in a Volvo promotional video.

"By gaining knowledge about the behavioural pattern of drivers in general and in older drivers, we can understand their needs and create solutions and design the car for them."

His team found a clear age difference, with older drivers having less flexible necks and narrower fields of view. They also noticed that senior drivers fall into unique driving habits.

For example, drivers over the age of 70 look more at markings on the road to position themselves in traffic, while younger drivers focus on objects such as other cars on the road.

Volvo, like many other carmakers, is aware the population is aging, and in the last decade, has begun to build in technologies that can help seniors compensate.

A few of these technologies are already ubiquitous; think anti-locking brake systems, cruise control and electronic stability control. Others are just beginning to be offered in high-end luxury cars, but should soon trickle down to a compact car near you. Here's a look at a few:

Heads-up Displays

Available in fighter jets for years, head-up display is now finding its way into cars, usually as an option. Heads-Up Display presents important information, such as speed and alerts, directly in the driver's field of vision. The information is projected through the windshield appearing about two metres away, at the end of the hood. While HUD reportedly takes some getting used to, manufacturers say it helps keep drivers' eyes on the road and eliminates the need to shift focus from the dash to the road.

Pre-Crash Warning Systems

Many carmakers are adopting these systems, which vary from car to car. Most use a radar in the front grille that sweeps the road and sends information back into a computer. If a potential crash situation is detected based on proximity and speed, the system immediately alerts the driver with either buzzers or visual warnings on the heads-up display or dash.

Some systems include pre-crash brake assist, which automatically pre-charges the brakes in the event of an imminent crash, while also automatically retracting both front seatbelts to help reduce injury. Volvo has a system that uses both a radar unit and a camera behind the rear-view mirror and also includes Full Auto Brake; in the event of a possible crash, drivers first get a warning; if they don't respond, the car's brakes are fully applied.

Pedestrian detection

This system, currently offered by BMW and soon to be offered by Volvo and others, uses intelligent algorithms to look for the heads and bodies of pedestrians and walking movement. If it detects a pedestrian in front of the car as it's moving slowly (or rolling at an intersection) the system automatically puts on full brakes. At higher speeds, the brakes are applied to slow the car significantly but not slam the car to a halt.

Lane Departure Warning

Using either cameras or infrared sensors installed near the rear-view mirror on the windshield, this system monitors road markings and the car's position. If the driver leaves the current lane without signaling first, the system alerts the driver with either audible alerts, or in the case of BMW, by making the steering wheel vibrate.

Adaptive Headlights and Night Vision

Adaptive headlights, available on a number of luxury car brands, move left and right with bends in the road. When driving in the city, a low beam is used; when driving at higher speeds, the Xenon headlights are automatically raised to increase visibility.

BMW, Mercedes and others also offer an optional night vision system that reveals objects up to 300 metres ahead of the vehicle -- beyond the scope of headlights -- using an infrared camera that transmits images to a display on the dashboard.

Blind spot detection

A number of carmakers are offering this feature, though some are more reportedly more annoying than others. Using radar, the system notices when another vehicle enters a defined blind spot zone and illuminates an indicator light on the corresponding side-view mirror. If the driver uses the indicator to change lanes while another vehicle is still in the blind spot, they are warned by either a flashing LED signal, warning sound, a vibrating steering wheel, or a combination.

Intelligent Parking Assist

These systems that make it easier for drivers to parallel park or back into a parking spot are already available as an option in several brands of luxury cars. With some systems, ultrasonic proximity sensors embedded in the front and rear bumpers beep before the driver hits the cars around them; others just cut out the middle man and actually park the car all by itself with little input from the user.