April 19, 2010
Chicago Sun-Times
Mary Wisniewski

Bob Parmacek, 78, was beginning to wonder if he was as sharp behind the wheel as he used to be.

“Night driving, particularly, bothered me a little bit,” said Parmacek. “Before I started having a problem, I wanted to see what could be done.”

Parmacek heard about a new brain-training computer software program called “DriveSharp,” which claims to reduce crash risk for older drivers. Parmacek said he started doing the DriveSharp computer exercises and believes his driving has gotten better.

“I live in Highland Park, and we get deer on the road every so often, and I’m able to see them much quicker than I did before,” said Parmacek, who says he also feels more comfortable merging onto the Edens Expy. “I don’t want to give up my driving, so anything I can do, I’m all for it.”

People over the age of 65 are mostly safe drivers — they’re less likely to drive drunk or drive while using a cell phone.

However, per mile traveled, crash and fatality rates start rising at age 70 and jump markedly after 80, as health conditions and declines in visual and cognitive skills start affecting some older drivers. Problems may include difficulty negotiating left turns and driving too slowly.

DriveSharp works with the idea that cognitive skills needed for driving can decline with age and can be strengthened with training, as muscles can be built by lifting weights.

DriveSharp is not like a classroom driving simulator, or one of those arcade games where you drive an imaginary race car. The Posit Science product consists of two computer games that, on the surface, don’t seem to have much to do with the physical act of driving.

One game involves tracking jewels hidden behind moving fish. The other has the player locating road signs and identifying cars within a circle.

The games are designed to improve reaction time and your ability to notice things on the edge of your peripheral vision, according to Steven Aldrich, CEO of San Francisco-based Posit Science.

“It focuses on your divided attention, which is a key piece of driving because you have cars around you and cars behind and in front of you,” said Aldrich.

Aldrich said independent research studies have shown DriveSharp improves users’ “useful field of view” — or the area from which one can extract visual data in a brief glance. Ten hours of useful field of view training can cut risk of an at-fault car crash in half, Aldrich said.

DriveSharp caught the interest of Allstate. To test the product, the Northbrook-based insurer offered Posit Science’s InSight program, which includes the DriveSharp games, to 100,000 Pennsylvania customers 55 and over.

Allstate saw “a significant improvement” in driving in customers who used the product, compared with those who didn’t, according to Tom Warden, manager of Allstate’s research and planning center. “We saw fewer accidents and losses,” Warden said. Allstate is looking into offering DriveSharp at a discount to customers. “We’d love to just be able to give it away for free,” Warden said.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research arm of AAA, recommends DriveSharp to AAA members, offering it at a discount for $69 instead of the retail $89. Foundation CEO J. Peter Kissinger admitted he thought the product was “too good to be true” when he first heard about it, but was convinced by the research.

“We think it’s a fantastic product,” said Kissinger. As baby boomers age, it has become more important to help keep older drivers fit for the road, since not being able to drive limits people’s lives, Kissinger said. “Driving is an incredibly important part of their well-being.”

Anne Hegberg, a senior driver rehabilitation specialist at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center in Wheaton, who is not familiar with DriveSharp, said one drawback she can see is that some older people aren’t computer savvy.

“But if they are, anything you can do to increase the use of your brain couldn’t hurt,” Hegberg said. However, she noted that some problems that affect older drivers — such as medication that causes dizzy spells — couldn’t be helped with a product like this.