By John Porretto
The Associated Press
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 McIntyre, 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 had to get such a device installed by a different company after having driven the car away from the dealership.
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 H. 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.
What to look for
Considering a new vehicle and have arthritis or another physical challenge? Think about these issues before selecting a new car, truck or van:
Ignition: Does the vehicle have a dash-mounted ignition? Steering wheel-mounted ignitions require a twist of the wrist to get the car started - a challenge for those with upper-body mobility challenges
Shifter: Is the vehicle equipped with a buttonless shifter? Many shifters require drivers to depress a button to shift from park.
Locks and Windows: Does the vehicle feature power locks and windows? Manual locks and windows can be difficult to use.
Seats: For people with certain mobility challenges, bench seats are preferred because they're roomier and easier to access
Entry: Is the vehicle equipped with remote keyless entry?
Cruise Control: Does the vehicle offer cruise control? Cruise control frees the driver from having to keep his or her foot on the gas pedal.
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