Bad Habits May Cause Older Drivers' Mistakes

How we can train elderly drivers to be safer


MR. MAGOO, a cartoon regular of early television, was notorious for his hazardous driving. He was a retiree, befuddled and extremely nearsighted, yet he continued to drive despite these obvious failings. In the opening sequence to his long-running show, he had run-ins with a railroad train, a haystack and several barn animals, a roller coaster, a fire hydrant, a mud hole and a high voltage line—all while honking his horn and shouting, “Road hog!”

As we look back, this montage seems like a cruel stereotype of the elderly, especially older drivers. Yet as with all caricatures, the one of Mr. Magoo had a grain of truth in it. The fact is that, mile for mile, senior drivers do have higher crash rates than all other drivers, other than teenagers. Even normal aging is accompanied by declines in vision, cognitive sharpness and physical ability. Isn't it logical that this bad driving would result from these deficits of aging, as the Mr. Magoo stereotype suggests?

Maybe not, says psychological scientist Alexander Pollatsek of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Pollatsek has been working with colleagues in the university's engineering school to systematically analyze the behavior of older drivers—including their visual scanning of the roads—and his evidence challenges the presumed connection between crashes and these well-known deficits. His work suggests these drivers' mistakes may result from learned habits, which may be correctable.

Look Left, Look Right

Pollatsek and his colleagues have been studying a particular class of accidents in which the elderly, especially those older than 70, are disproportionately involved: right-of-way crashes. These crashes occur when one driver fails to yield properly to another driver at an intersection of some kind. Experts have long assumed that these crashes occur when an elderly driver either cannot see the other car, is distracted and loses concentration or is physically compromised in some way. Pollatsek's group decided to test these assumptions.

The scientists used driving simulators to analyze the visual scanning of both older and middle-aged drivers in realistic driving conditions. Drivers experienced long uneventful stretches of road, punctuated by scenarios involving intersections. For example, a driver might come to a stop sign at a T intersection, which would require yielding to a driver approaching from the left. Or the driver might need to make a left turn across traffic at a four-way intersection with a traffic light. Each scenario contained a visual area that required monitoring for other, perhaps obscured, vehicles approaching with right-of-way. The drivers typically had three seconds to detect and respond to an oncoming vehicle.

Breaking Bad Habits

The scientists measured precisely how long the drivers spent glancing at the potential threat areas as they approached and entered these intersections. Their findings were somewhat unexpected. As reported online February 3 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, the older drivers spent significantly less time monitoring these critical visual regions than did the younger drivers. More important, there were no distractions in the simulations—pedestrians, for example—that might cause this poor scanning. Nor were the older drivers less capable of looking around; indeed, they looked around just as much as the younger drivers in general—just not when they should have been attentive to potential threats. In short, a failure to scan for potential hazards was by itself a cause of the crashes—rather than visual, cognitive or physical deficits.

So why are older drivers not watchful in risky situations? Here is where the findings get really interesting. The scientists' measurements suggest that this group of drivers were not mindful because they were spending significantly more time looking straight ahead. In other words, they were not scanning to their left and right, as they should have been, because they were looking elsewhere—in front of their car. The researchers believe that, over time, older drivers become intensely focused on not hitting anything directly in front of the car—to the exclusion of other goals. It is a habit and not a bad one for most routine driving; in intersections, however, the habit is perilous.

This article was originally published with the title "Old and on the Road."

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