Distraction affects drivers, young and old

Posted Jan. 18, 2009, at 7:22 p.m.

The ongoing discussion of older drivers has raised an important issue that is being presented in an oversimplified form, ignoring very complex underpinnings within the human nervous system. Solutions are vital to our state, as we have a scarcity of alternatives to individual driving. Let’s be objective and methodical in our approach rather than singling out people of a certain age.

The issue of older drivers isn’t about age. It’s about the physical, cognitive and emotional components that make good drivers. I think of the problem drivers as: Driving While Distracted, Driving Under the Influence of Hormones, Driving While Slow, and Driving While Stupid.

It has been well-established now that distraction is a serious problem for the modern driver. There are multiple instruments requiring our attention, including dials and gauges, radios, CD players and GPS; there is more traffic on the roads and longer distances to travel which may contribute to greater fatigue. We often do our banking from our vehicles, eat or drink in them; we talk on cell phones, fix hair, read and text. It is difficult enough just to guide the vehicle through traffic, never mind these unnecessary additions.

Distraction has nothing to do with age. It probably affects younger drivers, the family driver with noisy children or pets in the vehicle at least as much as an older driver who is more likely to be alone or with one other person. Most older folks don’t have cell phones, iPods or blaring stereos. They know they can’t multitask, and don’t try to.

We joke in our family about “testosterone poisoning.” Hormone-laden driving is not confined to males, although males on the average tend to be more aggressive and reckless. We have all observed young drivers whipping around vehicles, horns blaring and “the finger” waving, impatient to be first to the stop light. This style of driving assuredly poses great risk to the driver as well as the other vehicles on the road. This issue is only partly related to age

It’s also about speed. By this, I mean the speed with which one can detect, process and respond to stimuli. Good driving requires the quick recognition of something needing immediate action, a quick decision and a quick response. It is true that older people slow down in their mental processing, as well as the physical response, but at any age it is impaired by drugs, fatigue or medical conditions.

The changes encountered by aging people are well-known, and include such things as field defects (the extent of one’s visual environment which can be detected), loss of acuity by cataracts or other diseases, and recovery from glare. However, even perfect vision will be useless if the driver is not attending to the road.

Dealing with glare changes with age. Many older drivers avoid driving at night or in the rain for this reason. But drugs can also increase the time required to readapt to darkness after being blasted by a bright light.

Drivers who don’t know acceptable traffic procedures (e.g., yielding, merging), are impulsive or inexperienced, or who simply make bad judgments are not applying what intelligence they may have.

These factors affect almost everyone who drives, and virtually all of us drive “under the influence” of something or other at times. This does not imply that only older drivers should be singled out for special attention.

Currently, except for visual acuity and depth perception, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles assesses almost none of the above factors; to do so would require it to take a new approach to the licensing process. It would obviously take longer and cost more money. But a brief, cost-effective system can be developed. I suggest the following:

Attention — several short tasks might take up to one minute per examinee.

Speed — this would require special, not necessarily expensive, equipment, adding perhaps another five minutes.

Vision — examining glare recovery and visual fields might take another five minutes. Anyone with known visual problems would have to submit a report from an eye specialist.

Hormones — I have no suggestions here, other than pasting a flashing sign on the vehicle that the driver is a male-female of age 18-26.

Judgment and “road smarts” can only be evaluated by observation while driving.

Most of the above assessments are available in full, professional versions, but could be adapted and standardized in brief forms to be administered by specially trained motor vehicle examiners. If there are questions about the results, a professional could be consulted.

Surely the state can find better ways to evaluate all drivers, short of out-and-out age discrimination, thus making the roads safer for all of us. Let’s be fair and rational, and make use of the science available to us.

Anne L. Hess is a retired neuropsychologist.

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