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Skills, not just age, affect older drivers’ performance on the road

Media release

Testing the motor and cognitive skills of drivers may be a better indicator of risky older drivers than aged-based assessments alone, Curtin University research suggests.

Co-author Associate Professor Jianhong (Cecilia) Xia, from the School of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Curtin University, explained that negotiating an intersection is one of the main concerns for older drivers because it requires precision and efficiency in visual motor coordination.

“International statistics have shown that older drivers are over-represented in intersection crash statistics,” Associate Professor Xia said.

“In Australasia, for example, 97 per cent of on-road vehicle crashes that involved older drivers occurred at intersections.

“Older drivers may experience difficulties in time-related decision making while driving, especially due to declines in cognitive, motor and visual skills.

“With a global ageing population, we have and will continue to have more older driving adults on the roads, and our research looked at ways that we might be able to test and identify potential risks in this population, to improve their road safety.”

Dr Qian (Chayn) Sun, who worked on the research as part of her PhD at Curtin, said the older drivers in the study each had an eye tracker mounted on their head while they drove, which recorded their gaze points and eye movements, providing insight into their visual attention and reaction to stimuli from the traffic environment. The gaze points were geocoded and linked to the precise vehicle positions tracked by a type of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) installed on the vehicles’ roofs.

Dr Sun explained that this interdisciplinary method, so-called “psycho-geoinformatics” approach, is the first development in the research domain which enables the analysis of second-to-second behaviour of drivers.

Associate Professor Xia further explained that participants also underwent tests to measure their visual, attention, sequencing, executive function abilities and motor skills, as well as their level of risk taking behaviour.

“Overall, the results showed that visual motor coordination assessments, such as the ones we carried out in our research, are able to identify underperforming drivers and their problematic visual and motor skill-related behaviours,” Associate Professor Xia said.

“Interestingly however, the research results showed no direct correlation between the driver’s on-road performance and their age.

“Noting this, our research suggests that age alone might not be a good predictor for measuring an older driver’s abilities, but rather cognitive and motor skill abilities seem to have the most significant impact on their driving behaviours.”

Associate Professor Xia said the visual-motor coordination appeared to be a sensitive but reliable measurement for the prediction of driving ability among older adults.

“Older drivers must be aware of their abilities and limitations in visual-motor coordination so that they can compensate by employing defensive visual search and lane keeping behaviours to enhance their driving competencies. Practitioners can use our findings to develop training and driving intervention programs for older drivers,” Associate Professor Xia said.

The research paper was co-authored by Professor Jonathan Foster from the School of Psychology and Professor Torbjorn Falkmer and Associate Professor Heo Lee from the School of Occupational Therapy, Social Work and Speech Pathology at Curtin University.

The GNSS Research Centre at Curtin University provided base station reference data and the eye tracking analysis team from the School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work, Curtin University, analysed eye tracking data.

The paper, “Unpacking older drivers’ manoeuvres at intersections: Their visual-motor coordination and underlying neuropsychological mechanisms”, can be viewed online here.