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.

Habits can be broken, of course, and the scientists attempted to do just that. They designed an experiment in which older drivers were filmed as they drove near their homes. One camera was mounted on the drivers' head to record approximate line of sight as they looked around, and three other cameras were mounted in the car to monitor driving behavior. After being recorded, the drivers underwent a training session. Some watched the recorded videos of themselves driving through intersections. They also spent time driving in a simulator, where the researchers evaluated them and offered feedback, after which they were allowed to practice proper scanning. Other drivers did not watch the video of themselves and instead got half an hour of instruction, including coaching about the hazards of intersections and how to deal with them. All of them (and a control group that got no instruction) were evaluated in the simulator and on the road afterward.

The results were dramatic. Those who had merely received instruction did no better than the control group in subsequent driving tests. That is, merely being told to be careful had no effect. The older drivers who had received the video feedback, however, were indistinguishable from younger, experienced drivers in negotiating intersections. What is more, these improvements lasted a full year after the training.

The training did not attempt to improve motor skills or attention in the older drivers. The fact that this remediation worked—and so dramatically—means the scanning deficiencies are unlikely to be rooted in basic deficits of aging. The more probable conclusion, according to the scientists, is that the older drivers simply unlearned a bad driving habit.

This conclusion is welcome news. By 2030 one in four American drivers will be 65 or older, and these aging drivers are predicted to be logging more miles on our roads and highways than ever before. Older motorists are holding on to their licenses longer and relying less on others to drive them. Training such as the program used in the study may not help those who are visually, mentally or physically impaired—the Mr. Magoos of the highway—but it could be a simple and inexpensive method for heading off a looming public health problem.