July 17, 2009
The New York Times
Tanya Mohn

According to Census projections, as reported by The Shreveport Times, next year there will be 39 million Americans aged 65 years or older. And that number will jump to 69 million by 2030, which means more older drivers. By 2025, one-quarter will be considered elderly, said Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

“We may be wiser drivers when we’re older,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, the North American director of Make Roads Safe, a nonprofit organization in London, but declining abilities “can put us at risk.” Aging can slow physical and mental abilities that affect driving reaction time, night vision, peripheral vision, complex decision-making (like turning at intersections) and concentration.

A new computer program designed to help older people drive more safely was announced this week by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a not-for-profit research and educational organization. The software, DriveSharp, released in partnership with Posit Science, a provider of brain fitness programs, is intended to help Baby Boomers retrain their brains and delay the impact of aging.

“Most people buy into the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ philosophy with respect to physical abilities,” said Peter Kissinger, chief executive of the AAA Foundation. “But the bottom line is, it’s the same thing with the brain — the most important muscle in your body.”

DriveSharp consists of two interactive exercises designed to improve focus, reaction time and memory, and increase visual processing speed and the ability to track multiple objects, like cars at a busy intersection. But the gamelike software is serious science, the developers said: clinical studies have shown that when used properly, the program can help drivers see more, think faster and cut crash risk by up to 50 percent.

I tried the free online sample evaluation for “useful field of view,” one important measure of crash risk. (To try it yourself, go to “Measure Your Risk” at the DriveSharp Web site.) I had to remember which type of vehicle — a truck or a car — appeared on the screen then quickly disappeared. The next step required simultaneously keeping track of both types of vehicle and where a second vehicle was positioned in eight possible locations. It was fun, but tougher than I expected. I focused more when I realized how quickly the images came and went. By the end of the four- or five-minute exercises, my reaction time was faster and more accurate.

But do these kinds of programs actually work when you are behind the wheel? Dr. Dinh-Zarr of Make Roads Safe said that yes, research shows “there is training that can be done to improve one’s abilities related to driving.”

“We all think we are excellent drivers even when we aren’t,” she added. “Most people don’t think about the day when they can no longer drive safely, but it is definitely something we — individually and as a nation — need to prepare for now.”