Columbia epidemiologists receive grant to study senior safety on the road

January 12th, 2015
In the coming decades, the population of older adults in the United States will reach unprecedented numbers. By the year 2029, more than one in five Americans will be over the age of 65. And most of them will continue driving. To understand their safety and mobility needs, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has launched a five-year, $12 million Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project with Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and six other institutions.

The project will track approximately 3,000 active drivers aged 65-79 years for 5-10 years. Findings from five study sites in California, Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, and New York will shed light on the effects of aging on driving, specific risk factors - including prescription drug use and deteriorating vision, circumstances surrounding driving cessation, and mobility options for seniors who no longer drive.

Researchers will follow these drivers through annual assessments and interviews. To learn about the participants' driving patterns, each vehicle will be fit with a GPS device.

According to the AAA, there is limited empirical data about the interplay between health and driving safety during the process of aging - a knowledge gap identified by the National Institute on Aging as a key strategic research priority. With public health and medical advances, this growing population of older Americans will remain healthier and continue driving for longer. Improvements in motor vehicle technologies are also helping older drivers stay on the road.

Data from this $12 million project will allow researchers to better understand the role of physical and cognitive functions, medical conditions, medications, and vehicle technologies in driving safety. Researchers will also examine how older drivers self-regulate to avoid difficult driving conditions, and the causes and consequences of driving cessation.

"To many older adults, driving is essential for maintaining mobility and independence," says Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and principal investigator of the LongROAD project. "Unfortunately, declines in physical and cognitive functions may compromise the safety of aging drivers. This project will provide us much-needed insights into how to help older adults retain their driving privilege as long as they safely can, and how to provide them with comfortable and convenient transportation alternatives when they stop driving."

"This cohort will inform future interventions to maintain independence," said Thelma Mielenz, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School and co-PI of the LongROAD New York site, who specializes in mobility disability.

As the largest research initiative sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, LongROAD represents a long-term commitment to supporting the wellbeing of older drivers. It also represents a broad collaborative effort among researchers from multiple institutions and disciplines. In addition to Columbia's Mailman School, participating institutions are the Bassett Research Institute, the Johns Hopkins University, University of California San Diego, University of Colorado Denver, University of Michigan, and the Urban Institute.

Provided by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

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