DETROIT – Starting a car by placing the key in the ignition and turning is something most people take for granted. For someone with physical limitations, it’s not that simple.
Heidi McIntyre, who has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for more than 20 years, has had to insert a pencil or pen into her key ring at times to gain enough leverage to twist the key.
Automakers, increasingly aware of the needs of drivers like McIntyire, are placing greater emphasis on building cars, trucks and vans that are more accessible to people with mobility and other physical limitations. That’s going to be especially important as baby boomers age.
General Motors Corp. began offering a motorized, rotating lift-and-lower passenger seat last fall on some vans. In the past, a consumer would have had to seek an aftermarket business to have such a device installed.
Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group have elevated the seat height in new vehicles such as the Ford Focus and Chrysler Pacifica for easier entering and exiting.
Even moving the ignition from the steering wheel column to the dashboard – a change in some new cars and trucks – makes its simpler for elderly and physically challenged drivers to locate the slot, insert the key and start the vehicle.
“I don’t want to run a marathon or climb a mountain,” said McIntyre, 42, of Tucker, Ga., who drives a 1996 Saturn wagon she says suits her needs well. “I just want to be able to start my car easily. I learned how to use the pencil out of frustration. There are a lot of people in my situation.”
Indeed, roughly 70 million Americans suffer from arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation, and an estimated 80 million Americans are over the age of 50.
Dr. John Klippel, the Arthritis Foundation’s president and chief executive, said he’s encouraged by what seems to be increasing interest among automakers to produce vehicles that are easier to use for people with limited mobility.
Klippel said his Atlanta-based organization has had discussions with GM in recent months and hopes to meet again soon with the world’s largest automaker. The goal is to help GM better understand the limitations of people who suffer from ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis, which can lead to deformities, and osteoarthritis, the degenerative joint disease that often strikes people as they age.
“Many forms of arthritis involve the spine and neck, which means the ability to rotate the head is limited. That can cause problems using mirrors,” Klippel said. “For some, simply putting their thumb and first finger around the key is challenging. Groundswell is too strong a word, but we think it’s great the (automakers) are paying more attention to this.”
GM intensified its efforts in early 2003, deciding it needed to take a closer look at mobility given the aging population and increasingly competitive marketplace, said Jim Kornas, director of mobility product development.
Kornas reached out to people within GM who either had disabilities themselves or who had family or friends with physical limitations. What became a functioning internal team also tapped the resources of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association.
The result: GM’s Sit-N-Lift power seat, which became available in October on Chevrolet Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Montana vans. It also will be available on the new Chevy Uplander, Saturn Relay and Buick Terazza crossover sport vans due out this fall.
With a hand-held remote control device, users can rotate the second-row passenger seat, extend it out of the van and lower it for easier exit and entry. The cost is $4,590, and 2001 and later versions can be retrofitted. GM declined to provide sales figures.