While technologies such as navigation systems, cell phones and MP3 players can distract a driver’s attention to the road, those same technologies can help older adults be safer drivers.
Accident risk follows a distinct pattern over a person’s lifetime. It’s high for young people, then lessens as they gain experience and reach middle age. Then, however, accident risk increases as drivers enter their senior years. “At 80 you’re just as dangerous as a 20-year-old,” says Emerson Electric Quality and Productivity Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering John Lee. “As we get older, we fall into bad habits. Because driving is somewhat forgiving, we can drive dangerously and not suffer any consequences for years.”
This onset of consequences, he says, has several causes. When people retire, their commuting patterns change and their ability to hear, see and concentrate decreases. Older couples often drive as a team; the passenger might check blind spots and help navigate. When one spouse dies, the remaining one is left without that help. But for many older adults, losing the ability to drive triggers a loss of independence, weakens social networks, and speeds their entry into care facilities.
Collaborating with researchers in the UW-Madison Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies, Lee is studying ways technology can enable seniors to drive longer and more safely. One of the simplest solutions, for example, is planning routes in advance to ensure older drivers know exactly where they’re going. On-vehicle sensors can help them avoid physical hazards and make a safe turn, or in the not-too-distant future, do much of the driving for them.
Lee will share his findings with auto manufacturers such as GM, Nissan and Honda with the hope that future vehicle designs reflect the needs of older drivers, too. “The main point of this project is to provide the voice of the older driver into the design process so it enhances mobility and safety,” he says.