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Reaserchers using a driving simulator are able to modify road conditions and throw in turns to test the risk of driving while distracted in older adults. It looks like a video game but in fact it is more like a flight simulator like they pilots are tested in only for autmobile drivers. As the conditions on the simulator change they measure the driver’s performance and attention in a number of ways including brain wave patterns and heart activity.

The problem is real and getting worse.

We all see the level of distraction on our highways. If you don’t believe it try to find someone on a busy roadway that "isn’t" using a cell phone! With studies showing 25 percent of car accidents are caused by distraction while driving this simulated driver course could help make roads safer.

A typical answer given by drivers is" “I don’t like to use my cell phone in the car but I do sometimes when I have to."

Surprisingly psychologists have found that there are other distractions more dangerous than cell phones and text messaging.

"We can be distracted by operating the radio, we can be distracted by passenger conversations, we can be distracted by events in the environment,” Richard Backs, Ph.D., psychologist at Central Michigan University told Ivanhoe.

Anything that interferes with paying attention to the road will make driving a car dangerous. The new driving simulator is being used to test the attention of older drivers — who are especially at risk for an automobile accident when distracted. With the elderly population in Hawaii we have a large concern about car crashes and injury accidents caused by distratced drivers and the elderly are a natural source of concern. I went through this with my dad when he got into his 80’s. He did not want to give up his freedom to drive. But I could see that he was losing his skills both in being distracted easily and in vision and reaction time. On the busy streets on Oahu and in the low light of evening and night, an elderly driver like my dad psoes a risk to others of death or serious personal injury.

The driving simulator reserach offers a way to quantify the problem.

“We can manipulate the environment in ways that produce situations in which older adults typically have problems, like making left hand turns into traffic, or merging onto the freeway,” Dr. Backs said.

In the simulator, a driver sees a realistic virtual-reality driving environment. Researchers control what the driver sees, by adding turns, different road conditions or speeding cars. Researchers can then track and record a driver’s performance.

“We can replay their performance in the simulator. The driver can actually see how they did and hopefully learn from that,” Dr. Backs said.

Studies like this of Senior’s driving abilities will allow us to focus on training and public education to save lives and improve safety.

“These older adults are going to want to continue driving for as long as they possibly can, our goal is to help them drive safely,” Dr. Backs said.

The story that recently brought this subject to my attention is based upon the American Institute of Physics series Discoveries and Breakthroughs in Science by Ivanhoe Broadcast News. All rights reserved.

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