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Choosing the Right Car Can Help Ease Your Aches and Pains

November 21, 2001|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You've just found your dream vehicle. The color is perfect, the styling screams "2002" and it's got all the bells, whistles and safety features your heart desires and your budget can manage.

But before you proceed to the paperwork stage, you might also check to see if your new ride is body-friendly--especially if you have back pain, arthritis, neck or shoulder pain or vision defects, or if your height is below or above average.

Paying attention to special features that minimize or accommodate such health or anatomy concerns can mean the difference between a comfortable commute or a killer one, between loving the vehicle next month or wondering, "What's the resale value?"

Back Pain and Arthritis. Four of five Americans will suffer, at one time or another, from low-back pain--the kind of twinges and spasms that can turn a brief commute torturous. If you're among them, you need a seat with the best support, says Dr. Bruce D. Browner, chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of Connecticut Health Center and a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

"Find the seat that fits your body," Browner advises. Because the best seat for an individual will vary by body size and shape, that could mean a lot of trial and error.

The small of your back must be well-supported, says Dr. Robert Swezey, founder of the Swezey Institute in Santa Monica, which specializes in treating back pain and arthritis patients.

"A lot of the cars out now really do a good job," he says.

To get the best fit, drivers should look for lumbar supports that can be adjusted, either manually or by power, to a range of positions. "The more adjustable the lumbar support, the better," says Jack Gillis, public affairs director of the Consumer Federation of America and author of "The Ultimate Car Book 2001" (HarperCollins, $19.95). Pay attention to the position and feel of the armrest too, Gillis says. Try it out to see if it relieves stress and strain on the back.

Even with good lumbar support, drivers have a tendency to slump, says Lawrence Schneider, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. And the seat that feels good when you get in the car might not feel good an hour later. Ideally, Schneider says, drivers should test-drive vehicles for an hour to see how the seat feels, though he acknowledges that auto salespeople may not be keen on spending that much time with a single customer.

But doing so makes sense, according to a study Schneider and his colleagues conducted several years ago at the institute. They found that the seats rated most comfortable by drivers at the outset--usually the softest--were rated the most uncomfortable at the end of a one-hour session.

Heated seats aren't just a luxury item, especially for anyone with backaches, orthopedist Browner says, noting that heat can be therapeutic.

Such seats are showing up as an option in more models, from mid-priced entries such as the Volkswagen Jetta GLX compact to higher-end vehicles such as the Lexus LS 430 luxury sedan, which offers heated seats in both front and back (as well as back seats with a massage feature). The Cadillac DeVille DHS and DTS luxury sedans offer heated front and rear seats as part of the standard package, with the massage feature also on the front seats.

If you have problems turning your neck and torso because of injury, nerve damage, whiplash or other conditions, consider a reverse sonar feature in which a wired-in sonar system detects objects behind the vehicle and emits a series of beeps as the vehicle backs up. Sometimes referred to as parking assist, reverse sonar is available on models such as the Ford Windstar minivan and the Lexus LS 430.

Drivers with arthritis might consider power locks, larger control knobs, automatic transmission, tilt steering wheel and other features listed on the Arthritis Foundation's "Friendly Cars" checklist, posted on its Web site at http://www.http://arthritis.org .

Vision Issues. Drivers who are sensitive to light might consider vehicles with electrochromic mirrors, which dim automatically when glare is detected. At least 20% of today's new vehicles come with such mirrors, estimates Niall Lynam of Donnelly Corp. in Holland, Mich.

Extra window tinting may seem the easy solution for the light-sensitive driver, but eye doctors and state law suggest otherwise.

Under California law, only the top four inches of a windshield can be tinted, and then with no more than a 20% tint, says Officer Gaylord Gee of the California Highway Patrol. The rest of the windshield cannot be tinted, nor can the front-side windows, but the rear-side windows can be tinted. If the rear window is tinted, the vehicle must have a right outside mirror, Gee says.

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