The potential for isolation, lower self-esteem, and loss of independence makes not being able to operate a vehicle one of the most dreaded and devastating factors of growing old. During the past few decades, the safety of older drivers has been a highly researched public health concern. The focus of this research has evolved, bringing with it better understanding and more comprehensive ways to address the issue. The National Institute on Aging’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research has funded a significant amount of aging and driving research over the years. Research into one concept called Useful Field of View (UFOV) has been particularly instrumental in assisting elderly drivers to regain their safe driving skills. But, current UFOV training and testing has been a long process:
Do Older Drivers Pose A Risk? In the 1960s, early driving safety research mainly focused on the effect aging had on driving skills and whether or not elderly drivers posed a public safety risk. Most studies discovered that younger drivers actually had more accidents than their older counterparts. However, the risk of fatal or injury-producing accidents and the risk of accident in proportion to miles driven were both higher among older drivers.
What Factors Impact Driver Performance? In the 1970s, most research shifted to focus on the specific factors behind driving skill losses. Decreased visual acuity, cognitive function losses, and visual field losses were among the top factors that impacted driver performance. Other factors found to have an impact on driver safety included muscular, joint, ligament, tendon, and nerve disorders; cardiovascular disease; and usage of certain medications. However, researchers still couldn’t show a firm correlation between cognitive or vision function declines in older drivers and their involvement in vehicle accidents. Some researchers now attribute this problem to the separate measures that the researchers were using to singularly test vision and cognitive function impacts on driver safety, which didn’t account for the cognitive and visual performance interactions needed to manage the various driving distractions.
Can Older Drivers Retain Driving Skills? In the 1980s, researchers not only focused on identifying the possible factors reducing older driver safety, but also started to explore possible interventions to solve the driving skill decline associated with growing older. Drivers must be able to focus simultaneously on their front field of view; use their peripheral vision to monitor movements and objects beside them; distinguish informational stimuli, such as pedestrian crossings, school and work zones, stop signs, merges, and car signals around them; determine their own speed and estimate the speed of others; and make driving judgment calls, such as distancing, passing, and the timing of traffic lights.
The NIA’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research tackled the above complexities of driving by focusing on UFOV. This is the attention window in which a driver can quickly be alerted to visual stimuli. It measures how well a driver can notice, localize, and identify suprathreshold targets within their environment. Since a suprathreshold target is something that’s in a driver’s peripheral vision field and wouldn’t attract attention unless it’s a hazard, UFOV involves both vision and cognitive processes.
The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1987, which called for the investigation of the problems affecting the safety and mobility of older drivers and possible solutions, gave UFOV research a huge boost. The National Academies of Science Transportation Research Board recommended ways to advance UFOV research in a 1989 report and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) established the Human Factors in Aging initiative. University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers were among some of the first to receive UFOV funding. This research showed that while older adults were more apt to have a lesser UFOV than their younger counterparts, UFOV maintenance and loss is very individual. It’s very possible for many older adults to maintain an adequate UFOV into their eighties.
Early UFOV Testing and Training. In the 1990s, the above research had documented thoroughly that impaired mental status and/or visual function can result in UFOV declines. And, by the late 1990s, research showed that older drivers with a UFOV impairment of greater than 40% were almost twice as likely as those without impairments to be involved in an accident within the next few following years. Research also concluded that older drivers with UFOV limitations could improve their UFOV by 30% to 60% from participating in speed-of-processing training 30 minutes a day for five days. Although the training typically showed improved driving skills for up to 18 months, some drivers didn’t retain the skill as long and needed booster courses.
UFOV Testing and Training Today. Thanks to the NIA and the many public and private research teams throughout the years, UFOV testing and training is now available to help many older drivers retain their driving skills, retain their mobility, and operate safely:
- Florida, Maryland, and California use UFOV testing.
- Drivers that pass the UFOV test are offered an insurance discount at State Farm Auto Insurance Company.
- As of 2009, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a non-profit AAA affiliate, recommends the DriveSharp program.
- UFOV training programs are offered by TransAnalytics Health and Safety Services.
- Researchers are currently investigating using an in-car method in determining UFOV performance and alerting older drivers of their performance.
- One recent study supported by NIA found that the benefits of UFOV also included a decrease in depression and improvement of health-related quality of life.
In closing, UFOV testing and training programs have been a long time in the making and show great potential to make big differences in age-related restrictions on driving.