Harnessing new technology to support older drivers

Issue date: 11 September 2008


University of the West of England A new study has highlighted the key role technology could play in extending the age at which people can drive safely on our roads.

With input from older people, researchers from the University of the West of England, Bristol, have identified ideas for innovative in-car information systems which, if developed, could help compensate for the reduction in reaction time that affects many drivers as they get older.

The research could give older people the confidence to continue driving for as long as their capabilities allow. Crucially, because the systems would not take control of the car away from the driver, they would also enable users to retain their sense of independence.

Undertaken as part of the SPARC (Strategic Promotion of Ageing Research Capacity) initiative, the study will be discussed at this year's BA Festival of Science in Liverpool on Thursday 11th September. SPARC is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Specific ideas generated include:

•A system that unobtrusively displays road sign information through a head-up display on the windscreen. This is a see-through display that shows information without impeding the user's view. Harnessing Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, this would track a car's position and identify approaching signs. Exactly the same information contained in the signs would then appear on the windscreen at the right moment. The driver would therefore not have to keep scouring the road side for information.

•A system providing the driver with audible feedback on their current speed, again harnessing GPS technology. For example, one short, non-distracting bleep could indicate the car is approaching the local speed limit; a longer bleep could indicate the speed limit has been reached. The driver would therefore not have to look at the dashboard so often.

The systems have the potential to minimise the amount of time drivers divert their attention from the road ahead, cutting the chance of an accident.

These ideas emerged as a direct result of a groundbreaking survey of older people's driving-related needs and attitudes undertaken as part of the study. This was the first-ever wholly qualitative* study to focus specifically on this topic. Over a six-month period, focus groups and interviews were conducted with a sample of 57 people aged between 65 and 85. The sample included a balance of men and women, those living in urban and rural areas, and people who were still driving as well as those who had given up.

A key finding was the important psychological role that driving plays in older people's lives, in contributing to feelings of independence and freedom, and their quality of life.

Those surveyed expressed strong reservations about in-car technologies now under development which aim to take an element of control away from the driver (e.g. systems automatically limiting car speeds or regulating the distance between a car and the vehicle in front). By constraining feelings of independence, such technologies could discourage older people from driving even though they are still physically capable.

But a strong preference was expressed for technologies which simply improve information provision and aid decision-making, such as the GPS-based systems described above.

“Our research highlights issues that have been overlooked by car designers and those advising older people on lifestyles”, says Dr Charles Musselwhite, who led the study. “The current emphasis on developing technologies which take over part of the driving task may actually end up deterring older drivers. By contrast, better in-car information systems could help them drive safely and ensure they want to keep driving.”

Dr Musselwhite and his team are now planning to work with technical experts to produce a prototype speed information system and in-car road sign information display system.

Notes for Editors

The 14-month study 'Prolonging Safe Driver Behaviour through Technology: Attitudes of Older Drivers' received financial support from SPARC of £27,564. Additional support was received from the University of the West of England.

The study also highlighted that:

-Older women are currently more likely than older men to give up driving voluntarily. This may be because driving tends to play a different role in older men's perception of status and role.

-Older drivers' needs can be split into three categories: practical (e.g. going to the shops or doctor's surgery), social (e.g. visiting friends and attending functions) and aesthetic (e.g. enjoying the countryside and fulfillment of independence and control over one's life).

*Qualitative research is designed to explore beliefs, attitudes and perceptions through focus group discussions, for example. By contrast, its counterpart, quantitative research, involves asking respondents to identify with one or more of a selection of pre-determined answers to structured questions.

SPARC is a unique initiative supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to encourage the greater involvement of researchers in the many issues faced by an ageing population and encountered by older people in their daily lives. SPARC is directed, managed and informed by the broader community of researchers, practitioners, policy makers and older people for the ultimate benefit of older people, their carers and those who provide services to older people. For more information, visit http://www.sparc.ac.uk
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