January 18, 2010
AARP Bulletin
Julie Halpert

Recently, I needed a ride to the airport and my 78-year-old father agreed to drive me. It had been awhile since I’d been his passenger, and the experience proved a bit unsettling. We barely avoided a collision with another car entering the on-ramp, and then, for the next 25 miles, I clenched my teeth as he drifted and veered in and out of his lane.

My concern only grew after he dropped me off: Would he make it home OK? Are my three young children safe driving around with him?

So far, my dad has been one of the lucky ones. Last year alone, more than 750,000 drivers 65 and older were involved in accidents. Of those, one in six were injured and more than 3,400 were killed. We know from research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that the risk drivers pose to themselves and others increases beginning at age 70. That’s important because the number of drivers 65 and older is expected to explode, from 31 million today to a projected 40 million by 2020.

For my father, giving up the keys is simply not an option. He lives outside Detroit, in a suburb with no mass transit and where nothing is within walking distance. Without a car, he would be confined to the house and, worse yet, dependent on my mother to take him where he needs to go, diminishing his feelings of independence and self-esteem.

I wasn’t sure how to broach concerns about my father’s driving-as experts recommend. Though refresher courses are available, my father would have nixed the idea, considering that his granddaughter, a new driver, had just completed the same type of course.

Then I came across a new type of computer program designed to sharpen older drivers’ skills behind the wheel. The programs promise to improve the reflexes, focus and multitasking abilities fundamental to safe driving. With the new programs comes a hopeful strategy for keeping older drivers on the road in a safe manner—and for longer, allowing them to preserve a function critical to their quality of life.

Teaching new tricks
Unlike conventional simulators, which train drivers by mimicking the experience of being on the road, these software programs use challenging computer games-seemingly unrelated to driving-that target the physical, visual and cognitive skills required to competently and safely pilot a vehicle in the real world. By making the relevant parts of the brain work harder, computer-based driver training aims to bolster those functions.

Like muscles that strengthen when you exercise, brain function, too, can be enhanced by these exercises, which focus on things like handling distractions, processing moving objects coming toward you and responding to tasks quickly.

On the leading edge of driver training through computer games are DriveSharp by Posit Science, launched in July 2009, and Senior Driver by CogniFit, which followed a few months later. Schlomo Breznitz, who at 73 is an older driver himself, founded CogniFit. Leveraging his knowledge as a former psychology professor and founding director of the Center for Study of Psychological Stress at the University of Haifa in Israel, he started the company in 1999.

Breznitz says older drivers have a “slight overconfidence” of their skills, and the games in Senior Driver are meant to scale that back through exercises that teach the brain to evaluate its own abilities more realistically. For example, in one Senior Driver game called Beep Beep, you hear two different sounds coming from two images on the screen, click on the image you think makes the longer sound and then judge whether you got it right.

The approach by Posit Science, which has been in the brain fitness business since 2003, is explicitly related to driving, says CEO Steven Aldrich, in that it aims to improve “the useful field of view” by assessing how quickly you can take in information. The program helps you “think faster, focus better and remember more,” he says.

For example, DriveSharp’s game called Jewel Diver takes you on a deep-sea adventure in which you’re required to keep track of which bubbles hide gemstone treasures, like the memory game known as concentration. As the game progresses, there are more jewels to track and the background becomes more ornate, making the task of pinpointing the jewels more difficult.

Both programs will cost you, but probably less than a gym membership. With Senior Driver, you pay $20 a month to download the software, for a minimum of two months-the time it takes to complete one cycle of training. You can continue with as many cycles as you want. DriveSharp costs $89 for a software package of games. Each starts with a 20-minute assessment, followed by a number of weekly 20-minute training sessions; it takes an estimated eight to 10 hours of training to see any results.

Reality check
The big question, of course, is whether playing a series of games on the computer will translate to better driving on the road.

Richard Foley is a believer. Though Foley, 63, considered himself a pretty good driver, his wife, Mary Ellen, occasionally disagreed and often asked whether he was paying attention. “When something would catch me off guard, she thought I should have reacted a lot sooner than I did,” says Foley, a former sales executive who lives in Clemmons, N.C.

But after completing 12 weeks of training with the Senior Driver program, he says his performance on the road has improved significantly. Best of all, his wife “has stopped hitting the brakes on her side of the car.”

As for the science behind these programs, Posit’s DriveSharp has been more extensively studied. Peer-reviewed studies indicate that participating in DriveSharp for 10 hours cuts in half an older driver’s “at fault” crashes. A review of more than 30 research articles on the program’s benefits persuaded the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety to offer Posit Science to its members.

Psychology professor Karlene Ball, director of the Roybal Center for Translational Research on Aging and Mobility at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was skeptical when Posit Science approached her to take its research from the lab to the consumer. But after extensive research on drivers up to 100 years old, she recently presented results to the National Academy of Sciences indicating that the program resulted in reduced crash risk. “You can translate these exercises to better performance on the road,” she says.

But other safety experts say the jury is still out. Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says more research needs to be done to see whether these programs will actually prevent crashes among older drivers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began a study of older driver training programs in October, but results aren’t expected for at least two years.

In the driver’s seat
Test-driving these programs prov/ed to be the perfect excuse to engage my father in improving his driving. He reacted the way anyone would whose daughter casually suggested his driving could use some improvement-stubbornly and defensively.

“I don’t know how a computer game can make any difference in my driving,” he said. Eventually he consented-and even managed to successfully download Senior Driver-but two days later he hadn’t gotten around to the training, so I paid him a visit.

First, however, I tried both programs myself. Though I found DriveSharp’s Jewel Diver easy to follow and enjoyed clicking on the treasure-laden bubbles, another program, Road Tour, which involves circles of cars and signs to identify, was confusing even to my relatively young 47-year-old brain. I found Senior Driver far easier to navigate. Unlike DriveSharp, for instance, the directions were read aloud in addition to appearing on the screen, and I looked forward to seeing how my father would fare.

It was difficult to watch him struggle through Senior Driver, the one program he tried (I didn’t want to push my luck). A test of divided attention required him to identify an object at the center of the screen and then pinpoint that same object in a surrounding constellation of various objects, but each time it would vanish just as he went to click on it. I found myself frantically interjecting, coaching and even jabbing my finger at the screen to help. That only frustrated him more.

He scored a dismal 13 percent on his first exercise, but rather than discouraging him, he said the experience has made him approach driving differently. Now he knows he has trouble focusing on many objects at once, so he’s making a conscious effort to be more aware of other cars around him. “It really put me to the test,” he said. “I certainly will try it again.”

This was reassuring to me, and I look forward to seeing if this program will result in a more positive experience-for him and me-the next time I need a lift.