Older Drivers Recognize Their Shortcomings, Except One

Aug 18, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Many drivers over age 70 realize that their reaction time is slower so they naturally compensate by driving more carefully, says Matthew Romoser, who studies age-related physical and cognitive function and driving skills at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The problem, according to his latest research, is that many older drivers don’t realize that danger is coming at them sideways, not from head-on as they assumed.

For his recent doctoral dissertation, Romoser’s study at the university’s Human Performance Laboratory found that drivers 70 to 89 years old can best learn to use more side-to-side glances when executing practice turns at intersections in a driving simulator, compared to hearing a lecture. As Massachusetts and other states consider new screening for older drivers before renewing their operators’ licenses, the UMass Amherst researchers can recommend specific tests and effective refresher courses.

As people age, Romoser explains, they begin to process information more slowly, including visual information. This in turn makes it harder to process moving objects in the visual periphery. “The statistics reflect this,” he adds. “Rear-end, head-on, single-car and car-pedestrian accidents actually decrease among older drivers in this age group, probably because they do self-regulate. But side-impact crashes increase markedly over age 70, and findings from our head-movement studies suggest a reason: older drivers fail to compensate for the loss of peripheral processing. They don’t use enough side-to-side glances at intersections so they’re having accidents.”

“The problem is that, for some older drivers, once they cross the threshold into the intersection while making a turn, side-to-side scanning stops altogether. This is worrisome because without an additional quick side glance at the beginning of a turn, older drivers are likely to miss the sudden emergence of a previously unseen car. Compared to younger drivers, older drivers tend to focus only in the direction of the turn once they commit at an intersection,” he adds.

Romoser and colleagues tested three groups of 18 subjects each, ages 70 to 89, who either received:

• classroom lectures on using more side glances at intersections (passive group)

• active behind-the-wheel training in a driving simulator (active group)

• no training (control group)

When the researchers compared results of a field drive before and after training, they found the actively trained group significantly increased side-to-side scanning from 44 percent of opportunities before training to 83 percent afterward, nearly doubling their use of side-to-side scans in intersections, (the target behavior). Meanwhile, the passive training and control groups showed no significant change in side-to-side scanning.

An unexpected and refreshing outcome of this study, says Romoser, is that he and colleagues did not meet the resistance or skepticism they had expected from drivers who, in essence, had to face up to a significant driving error. “We live in a car culture,” he notes, “and there’s a natural fear of losing your license.” But with just a single exception, the researcher says, “People were very receptive to learning more and doing better.”

This willingness to receive instruction encourages Romoser and colleagues as they develop a driving instruction course specifically geared toward older drivers. Expecting that as the population ages and states consider additional screening programs for testing older drivers, Romoser and colleagues plan to have a practical training option available.

Romoser favors a tiered approach in which motor vehicle licensing agencies could screen drivers first on relevant variables such as response time, peripheral information processing and cognitive workload capacity, for example, before re-licensing. The vast majority will pass without incident, but some drivers might be diverted for further instruction in a “safe driving after 70” course to improve their performance and keep their operators’ licenses, for example, while others might be referred to a physician for further testing.

“We’re now designing a training program for older adults that is deployable to a driving instruction school,” says Romoser. As for the driver performance study, a one-year follow-up with the drivers in the active study group is just starting at the UMass Amherst’s Human Performance Lab to see if these drivers are still using the new skills a full year or more after learning them.

Provided by University of Massachusetts Amherst (news : web)

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User comments : 7

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NeilFarbstein
1 / 5 (2) Aug 18, 2009
..I'm King of the road...king of the road...king of the road
paulthebassguy
5 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2009
Try telling this to my grandmother.
gwrede
not rated yet Aug 19, 2009
I'm 52 and I've always closely monitored my body, perception and how I fare in situations. Lately I've begun to see that driving takes more effort.

If I'm on a familiar road, there's no problem. But the worst case is when it's raining in the night, and then there's road construction or some other irregularity ahead. I need to drive slower to manage it safely. It kind of "takes more looking" to get the big picture than it used to. And this is completely unrelated to age dependent deterioration of vision itself (which I don't yet have, except for the need of reading glasses to see the speedometer at night.)

It may be that the reason old people increasingly tend to look forward and skip the extra sideways look, is because they feel they "can't afford" to look two times per side for fear of missing something in the front.

Changes in reaction time aren't really that big between young and old *if* you measure it by having them press a button when a lamp is lit. But changes in processing unexpected information are way bigger than people usually recognize. In part this of course is because many older people have begun to "disguise" this lack or slowness.

A typical example is when you're talking with a very old person. As long as the conversation is about a single subject and contains no surprises, they can keep up with you just fine. But if you change the subject abruptly, they simply fall off track. And then they either say "huh?", give you an answer or comment that doesn't match, or blame you for talking too quietly.

This might be one reason (among many others) why older people avoid night clubs. There simply is too much going on for their senses. Visual overload because of blinking and moving lights while the essentials (floor, steps, furniture) are in the dark, hard to see and especially predict where they might be. Auditory overload with the music too loud, while talking is drowned and you at best hear partial words. Not to mention conceptual overload, where gazes, tones of voice and other non-verbal hints flash rapidly between the young and elated.

Many people try to actively *not notice* these things about themselves because it only reminds them of getting older, and it all is incurable, hence depressing.

frajo
1 / 5 (1) Aug 19, 2009
The best survival training is motorcycling.
yyz
not rated yet Aug 19, 2009
This may explain the traffic mess & confusion down here in (Tampa)Florida :0
StevenAldrich
1 / 5 (1) Aug 19, 2009
This research is helpful and it touches on the root cause of many accidents - reacting quickly enough to what is happening on the periphery of the driver's vision. The issue is not eyesight, but brain performance.

A recent National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration study of older driver assessment programs concluded that testing brain performance was the most predictive in understanding crash risk. The medical and science literature is also clear that brain fitness and therefore driving safety can be improved at any age with the right mental exercises (just like physical fitness is for the body).

I am CEO of Posit Science, the leader in clinically-proven brain fitness software. We recently introduced DriveSharp, a program that can reduce crash risk by an average of 50% and is recommended by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. You can try a free online demo of one of the training exercises and a free evaluation at http://www.drivesharpnow.com
Towchain
5 / 5 (2) Aug 19, 2009
50 years from now it will be seem crazy that people used to steer cars manually. All the needless deaths and costs from crashes just for want of technology that will be so common in the near future.