Driving is a complex task, regardless of age. It involves psychomotor, visual and cognitive skills. However, as you get older, some of these skills may gradually decrease and affect your driving. Over time, our pupils become smaller and this can affect our ability to adjust to changes in light and to perceive contrasts. Hearing loss can affect our ability to respond to our environment. A decrease in motor skills can affect our reaction time (for example, evaluating distances, seeing intersections or staying in one's lane). Not to mention other health factors that can affect older adults’ ability to drive, such as arthritis, stroke, heart disease, and cognitive disorders.(1)
Automotive technologies are evolving rapidly. New so-called ‘smart’ technologies facilitating driving have emerged and are now increasingly available in vehicles. But what does research tell us about the impact of these smart technologies on older drivers?
What the research tells us
A recent systematic review examined 28 studies on smart, in-vehicle technologies. Two types of technologies were identified: 1) in-vehicle information systems and 2) advanced driving assistance systems. The studies examined whether these systems met the needs of older drivers, improved their comfort (both physical and psychological), and improved their safety (that is, reduced the risk of errors or collisions). Some of these studies have been conducted on driving simulators and others on the road. Only two studies focused on older drivers with at-risk medical conditions, more specifically Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease.(2)
In-vehicle information systems
The systematic review identified 15 in-vehicle information systems, nine of which were effective in improving the safety of older drivers, such as:
- audible message systems providing safety-related messages led to fewer strong decelerations and route errors, and helped control speeds when approaching an intersection ;
- collision avoidance systems providing auditory and visual cues led to faster reaction times for forward and side collisions with objects;
- curve speed warning systems helped drivers moderate their speed when approaching curves;
- speed adaptation systems reminded drivers of local speed limits and prompted them to slow down;
- intersection warning systems providing visual, auditory and tactile warnings helped to stop drivers at intersections when conditions were dangerous;
- lane change or lane departure warning systems reduced unintended lane departure, without increasing distraction ; and
- night vision enhancement systems providing tactile and auditory warnings improved drivers’ detection of pedestrians.
While the review identified other in-vehicle information systems, the research evidence about their effectiveness was either mixed or inconclusive.
Overall, the benefits of in-vehicle information systems are decreasing as the information presented to drivers becomes more complex. For example, the visual, auditory or cognitive limitations of drivers affect their ability to comprehensively perceive and interpret information presented on both the dashboard and their environment, and influence their ability to quickly process the information or to react to avoid a collision, for example.
Advanced driving assistance systems
The systematic review identified five effective advanced driving assistance systems:
- adaptive cruise control systems improved speed control in traffic, built-up areas, and low-speed limit areas;
- assisted parallel parking systems reduced the number of times needed to back-up into a parking space;
- active steering assist systems helped drivers maintain their lane position;
- brake assist systems improved stopping distance when there is a need for emergency braking; and
- lane keeping systems providing steering assistance improved lane maintenance, as well as the perceived comfort of older drivers.
Overall, all these smart in-vehicle technologies seem effective only if they are consistent with the driver's capacities. For example, a beep to warn of a collision will not be effective if the driver has hearing loss. In addition, smart in-vehicle technologies can improve safety and comfort while driving, but only if they do not increase the cognitive workload of drivers (meaning the level of mental effort a driver must provide in response to one or more cognitive tasks). For example, if a driver needs to focus on the dashboard screen to try to understand all the information presented, the driver may no longer look at the road and see that the traffic lights are red. Finally, it is important to note that none of the studies identified in this systematic review examined whether these technologies actually met the needs of older drivers.
Adapting your car and your driving
Drivers can now rely on new technologies to drive more safely. Remember that it is possible to have your vehicle adapted to respond to your specific needs. An occupational therapist can assess your needs and recommend adaptation to your vehicle. It is also important to become familiar with your vehicle's new technologies. Again, an occupational therapist can provide you with training on the optimal and safe use of new technologies in your vehicle.(3)