Keeping older drivers safely on the road

Many older drivers give up the freedom of the road because their reaction times aren’t as sharp as they once were – leading to inactivity and isolation which can cause depression.

Intelligent Transport in the UK has developed a new product called the “Granny-Nav” to help senior drivers overcome this obstacle by identifying the safest route possible for them. They believe that ability, not age, should determine how safe someone is on the road.

The work came about as part of the $12 million dollar project known as SIDE – Social inclusion through the Digital Economy – being led by Newcastle University, in a quest to see how technology can improve our lives.

They have even converted an electric car into a mobile laboratory known as “DriveLAB” which features navigation tools, intelligent speed adaptations and night vision systems to help with driving in the dark.

Drivers wear glasses that can track eye movement and stress levels, while monitoring access where the key stress points for older drivers are.

So far, 20 drivers in their 80s have taken DriveLAB out for a spin, and from these test drives the team discovered some key information.

Most of the participants said finding a safe route was the most important factor in making them feel comfortable driving, encouraging them to develop a bespoke sat-nav that would help find them a comfortable route.

Many avoided turning right (equivalent to left here in North America) as they did not feel safe about judging the speed of oncoming traffic.

“For many older people, particularly those living alone or in rural areas, driving is essential for maintaining their independence, giving them the freedom to get out and about without having to rely on others. And people base their whole lives around driving a car, having mobility,” Phil Blythe, professor of intelligent transport systems at Newcastle University told BBC.

“But we all have to accept that as we get older our reactions slow down and this often results in people avoiding any potentially challenging driving conditions and losing confidence in their driving skills. The result is that people stop driving before they really need to. What we are doing is to look at ways of keeping people driving safely for longer, which in turn boosts independence and keeps us socially connected,” he continued.

Leader of the study Dr. Amy Guo said the study has produced some surprises.

“For example, most of us would expect older drivers always go slower than everyone else but surprisingly, we found that in 30mph zones they struggled to keep at a constant speed and so were more likely to break the speed limit and be at risk of getting fined. We’re looking at the benefits of systems which control your speed as a way of preventing that,” she told BBC.

Displaying information on a widescreen rather than a dashboard is also being considered, so drivers can avoid the need to look away from the road, along with systems that can detect if the car drifted into the next lane.

Professor Blythe feels that some of these technologies will be available shortly, while others may be as far as 5 to 10 years down the road.