The aging process brings challenges for drivers. Diminished vision and hearing, stiff joints, health problems and slower reaction times can take their toll and raise the odds of an auto accident.
But thanks to technology, there are steps drivers can take to help increase their skills, positively modify their driving behaviors and boost their confidence behind the wheel.
A recent study by a researcher at the University of South Florida and colleagues from other universities published in Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences explored the relationship between cognitive abilities and driving skills. Researchers studied the driving records and skills of an estimated 4,000 people 55 and older across several states and found that computerized training programs designed to enhance mental agility improved the brain’s processing speed and, in turn, driving skills.
“One of the most important predictors of driver mobility is cognitive speed of processing — how fast people can process information and act on it,” explained Dr. Jerri Edwards, study co-author and associate professor at USF’s School of Aging Studies, in a news release. These training sessions can lead to more confidence and more frequent driving, she said.
The training sessions in the study were targeted at enhancing the brain’s processing speeds and improving divided attention, and required participants to correctly identify visual and auditory targets and locate the source quickly.
The study looked at how frequently senior drivers were on the road, how skilled they were in various types of driving and how far they traveled when on the road — all over a five-year period. The average age of participants was 73.
The findings are noteworthy, according to Edwards, given the importance of driving for older adult well-being and independence. An uptick in driving frequency was the strongest outcome of the computerized training, she said. The number of computerized training sessions is a factor in maintaining driving frequency, the study noted.
Edwards credits the rapid growth in technology, especially the personal computer and the Internet, for creating the potential to reverse some statistics. “This field has expanded rapidly,” she said.
Another crash risk: falls
A recent study released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Tampa has found another potential obstacle to safe driving: falling. Seniors with a history of falling are 40 percent more likely than their peers to be in an auto accident, researchers found. (Annually, an estimated 12 million older adults experience a fall.)
According to foundation president Peter Kissinger, drivers 60 and older are involved in more than 400,000 accidents each year.
The study points to two ways falls can increase crash risk: through loss of functional ability (for example, if a broken bone makes it hard to steer or brake to avoid a crash) and through an increased fear of falling, which can lead to inactivity.
“Falls often scare people into being more sedentary, but decreasing physical activity can weaken muscles and coordination, thus making someone more likely to be in a crash,” AAA traffic safety consultant Michele Harris said in a news release.
“When it comes to physical health, it’s important to stay active. Older drivers should find activities that enhance balance, strengthen muscles and promote flexibility. Some things we recommend … housework, a walk around the block, stretching. Don’t stop doing that.
“Even a low-impact fitness training program or driver improvement courses could help safely extend an older driver’s years on the road.”
Falls can be an indicator of declining physical fitness, but sometimes there are other factors at play, such as poor balance, dizziness or vision issues and the effects of certain medications. Discuss these possibilities with a health care provider.
While acknowledging the role of physical fitness, AAA also recognizes the importance of cognitive abilities.
It offers Roadwise Review, a computer screening that evaluates driving, to AAA members and nonmembers at roadwiseonline.org. The screening can be done on a home computer “at your own pace,” Harris said. “It takes you through a series of interactive games that assess your cognitive ability. It tests reaction time. It tests memory.”
At the end, your results can be printed out and even shared with your doctor to review certain indicators, if desired. Otherwise, the results are completely private. They are not reported to anyone, Harris emphasized.
Another computer course, DriveSharp, also is offered. “It’s like a brain stimulus program to improve cognitive growth so critical for driving,” Harris said. “The course is clinically proven to help drivers see more, react faster and cut crash risk by up to 50 percent.”
The course, which consists of 10 one-hour sessions and can be done over several weeks, can be accessed through Brain HQ’s monthly subscription service (brainhq.com). It costs $49 for for qualified AAA auto club members (drivesharp.com).