Vehicle Design and Occupant Protection


Older adults are more likely than younger people to die in crashes of the same severity because of their increased frailty. Increased seat belt use, front and side airbag installation, and safer vehicle design can reduce fatalities and injury severity.

Private vehicles—technological advances in occupant-protection mechanisms include four-point seat belts, safety belt pre-tensioners, and advanced front-seat airbags (which adjust the force of their inflation to accord with the passenger’s weight). Federal law requires airbags in all new automobiles. However, airbags have been recalled over the years because of a variety of problems, including faulty inflators, defective sensors, and improper installation. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act makes funding available to states to put in place effective programs to reduce highway deaths and injuries that result from individuals riding unrestrained or improperly restrained in motor vehicles.

Vehicle design features that increase comfort and safety may also improve mobility for older adults. For example, certain designs can make it easier to get in and out of a vehicle or make it easier to see the instrument panel, which can help overcome barriers to continued driving. A number of products for aftermarket installation are now sold as devices that can improve safety for individuals who are experiencing functional changes. These range from low-tech items, such as nonplanar mirrors (to improve awareness of hazards at the side of a car), to high-tech devices, such as hazard-warning and collision-avoidance technologies. Research showing safety outcomes for older users is limited and generally proprietary to manufacturers.

Cars are increasingly equipped with new technologies, such as GPS capability or equipment that enables remote navigation and crash response. Although such technology can benefit drivers, it may also make driving more complicated or distracting. It may even increase safety risks. However, design features can minimize the negative consequences of using multiple new technologies. Research on the safety risks of multiple in-vehicle technologies is limited.

NHTSA conducts crash tests every year and rates how well they protect drivers and passengers during front- and side-impact collisions. These ratings provide a useful basis for comparing vehicle safety. A high percentage of crashes involving older adults are side-impact collisions, making it particularly important that older adults who purchase cars have information about the best protection from such incidents.

Vehicle automation—new automated vehicle technologies have the potential to improve road safety and reduce the number of crashes. Technologies that enhance driver abilities are currently being tested. These innovations can improve driver visibility, keep vehicles stable and in line with traffic, warn drivers of potential risks, and monitor vehicle components, among other functions.

A study by The Hartford and the MIT AgeLab identified ten technologies, falling into four categories, that support all drivers, and especially older drivers:

  • Technologies that make drivers more visible and help drivers with limited mobility, including:
    • smart headlights (automatically adjust range and intensity depending on traffic distance),
    • reverse monitoring system (warns of objects in rear of the vehicle),
    • blind-spot warning (warns of objects in driver blind spots), and
    • assistive parking system (self-parking vehicle).
  • Technologies that help vehicles avoid destabilization and collisions with other vehicles, such as:
    • lane-departure warning system (monitors vehicle position in driving lane and warns of any deviation from the lane),
    • crash mitigation system (detects collision risks), and
    • vehicle stability control (brings vehicle back into intended line of travel if, for example, driver underestimates curves).
  • Technologies that keep the driver’s focus on the road and traffic, including:
    • drowsy-driver alert (monitors degree of driver attentiveness) and
    • voice-activated systems (drivers can access car features via voice command).
  • technology that helps during an emergency, for example:
    • an emergency response system (can send first responders to the scene after an emergency or collision, especially if the motorist is not able to communicate).

Other automated innovations include vehicle-to-vehicle communication, brake override systems, and a driver alcohol detection system. This last device prevents the engine from starting if the driver’s blood alcohol level is above the legal limit.

Intercity and charter buses—people 65 and over use intercity and charter buses, also known as over-the-road buses (OTRBs), more than any other age group for travel. These buses are subject to federal and state safety requirements. As of 2016, federal regulations require that newly-constructed OTRBs install passenger seatbelts. However, concerns about safety remain, and state safety regulations vary considerably.

Vehicle Design and Occupant Protection: Policy

Seat belts

In this policy: FederalState

States should use funds for occupant-protection and other safety programs available under federal transportation law and should continue to mandate the use of seat belts in motor vehicles.

Federal and state governments should actively promote seat belt use, especially by older individuals.

Congress should continue to authorize seat belt and occupant-protection incentive grants for the states.


In this policy: FederalState

The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the states should require automakers to fully disclose the possible consequences of airbag use by vulnerable vehicle occupants and should provide public information and education on ways to make airbags safer.


In this policy: FederalState

States should ensure the safety of intercity and charter vehicles

The DOT should accelerate its regulation of occupant safety in charter and intercity buses.

The DOT should test occupant-protection systems for charter and intercity buses, including safety belts, to determine which one most effectively protects older adults and individuals with disabilities; the DOT should then require the installation of that system.

Safety standards

In this policy: Federal

Federal rules should require driver and passenger airbags in automobiles, minivans, and light trucks.

Congress should require automobiles, minivans, and light trucks to meet stricter safety standards through innovations such as improved interior components to prevent head injury, antilock brakes, stronger side-impact structures, better rollover and roof-crush protections, and anti-lacerating glass.

Congress should require the development and implementation of federal standards designed to improve safety for vulnerable occupants of vehicles.


In this policy: Federal

Congress should require and fund research into the factors that contribute to the differences in fatality rates for older and younger people involved in car crashes, as well as further research on safety issues.

Federal standards governing vehicle design, control, and operation should incorporate available and emerging technologies to promote safe driver performance and vehicle crashworthiness.

The DOT should conduct, support, and publish research on improving the effectiveness of airbags and seat belts for vulnerable populations, including older adults and children; on vehicle designs that enhance both safety and usability for older adults; and on the effects of installing and using new technologies marketed as safety improvements, focusing on at-risk subpopulations, as appropriate.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should require that prospective vehicle buyers be provided with safety ratings information.

Federally funded transportation safety research should extend to all modes of transportation, including automobiles, public transportation, specialized transportation (paratransit), walking, and bicycling. Research on, and development of, safety mechanisms and strategies should identify and address the needs of frail and vulnerable individuals.