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Study: Some Older Drivers More Susceptible to Making Errors When Distracted

April 11, 2012
When you hear the phrase "distracted driver," what comes to mind: a teen texting while behind the wheel, or an older driver? According to researchers, certain older drivers might be particularly susceptible to making driving errors when distracted.

New research suggests that older drivers who show limitations on a Useful Field of View (UFOV) test make more driving errors when distracted. Useful field of view is defined as "the area over which a person can extract information in a single glance without moving his or her head or eye." Drivers with limitations in UFOV are more likely to have problems in demanding driving situations and have an increased risk of crashes.

The study, led by Joanne M. Wood, Ph.D., FAAO, of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, included 92 drivers who averaged 74 years old and who underwent the computerized UFOV test. Drivers then performed a closed-course driving test three times. On two occasions, they did the driving test with in-car visual or auditory distracters, consisting of simple math problems presented on a video screen or audio speaker.

Drivers who had limitations in UFOV were most likely to have problems on the driving test related to both visual and auditory distracters. They also took longer to complete the driving test – possibly reflecting slower driving speeds, which are common among older drivers. In particular, drivers who scored lower on the "selective attention" subtest of the UFOV had decreased performance in the presence of distracters. These drivers also were more likely to be rated at high crash risk on the UFOV.

In contrast, older drivers who did better on the selective attention subtest had better overall performance on the driving test, even with distracters. The selective attention subtest was a better predictor of performance on the driving test than the other two UFOV subtests (visual processing speed and selective attention).

Minimizing Distractions

Previous research has shown that the UFOV test is highly effective in predicting crash risk among older adults, with or without vision problems. The new study suggests that distractibility is an important contributor to problems in driving performance and to crash risk predicted by the UFOV test.

"Our results have important implications for the design of in-vehicle devices, such as satellite navigation devices and mobile phones (even when hands free)," Wood and coauthors wrote. "The effects of distracters are likely to be exacerbated as the driving environment becomes increasingly complex."

The researchers believe that older drivers with "more extensive constriction" of their UFOV should be warned of their possible increased risk of driving errors – and especially should minimize distractions while driving.

"The result is consistent with the observation that many have made that as you age you find in-vehicle distractions (like a radio or noisy conversation) to be more annoying," said Anthony Adams, OD, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of Optometry and Vision Science. "It certainly raises even more questions about the wisdom of in-vehicle screen displays and cell phone use!"

The study appeared in the April issue of Optometry and Vision Science, the official journal of the American Academy of Optometry.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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