How To Assess Older Drivers: Senior Citizens

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How to assess the driving abilities of seniors is an increasing challenge for American society. Age alone is not a reliable indicator.

The onset of dementia and other illnesses can subtly but seriously impact the driving skills of some individuals when they are still in their 60s, while other individuals have outstanding driving skills in their 80s and beyond. The challenge is to find an objective, standardized, and practical method for reliably assessing the critical cognitive and motor skills needed for safe driving.

The new assessment program being developed by Raydon Corporation and the Eastern Virginia Medical School is called the Functional Driver AssessmentT, or FDAT. It will measure a person’s performance in various cognitive and psychomotor tasks to determine not only a person’s ability to drive, but also to ascertain the person’s overall cognitive abilities.

Raydon is an established leader in military applications of ground vehicle simulation training. Since 1995, the company has been producing and marketing cutting-edge driving simulators to train and evaluate drivers. Raydon simulator programs teach driver education to novice drivers and driver improvement for experienced drivers.

“This validated assessment tool is a perfect complement to our other driving programs as we look to expand the use of Raydon’s commercial simulation technology and to provide affordable solutions for assessing driver performance,” stated Don Ariel, Raydon Founder and CEO.

Barbara Freund, Ph.D., an associate professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School’s Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology, is a nationally recognized researcher on driver safety among older adults. She developed a simulated driving assessment tool that objectively tests the cognitive and motor skills used in driving. Her computerized assessment tool has been validated against on-road assessments. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) refers elderly drivers to Freund for evaluation.

“DMVs are looking for help on how to evaluate drivers objectively without penalizing them just because they’re old,” said Freund.

Crash rates for drivers 75 and older are second only to the rates of drivers under 24, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Older driver involvement in fatal crashes is projected to increase 155 percent by 2030, accounting for 54 percent of the total projected increase in fatal crashes among all drivers.

“As the population ages, the percentage of older drivers increases and declining driver competence becomes an urgent public health problem,” said Freund.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of elderly driver restrictions, including accelerated renewal procedures and requirement for vision tests. Two states, Illinois and New Hampshire, mandate road tests for drivers age 75 and older, but few DMVs have personnel trained to objectively evaluate older drivers.

“The DMV is primarily equipped to conduct road tests with novice drivers, not experienced older drivers,” said Freund. In most cases, DMVs refer evaluations to specialists trained to evaluate older drivers. That can be expensive and evaluations are not standardized.

Freund’s 30-minute driver evaluation program requires driving on suburban, urban, and rural roads, with the execution of maneuvers likely to cause stress – for instance, avoiding a pedestrian on a highway. The program evaluates driver performance and categorizes drivers as either safe or unsafe. Because driving requires a range of cognitive functions, the simulator testing may bring attention to a previously undiagnosed cognitive impairment.

“Undiagnosed cognitive impairment and dementia are surprisingly prevalent among older apparently healthy individuals,” Freund said. “This may allow us to recognize the impairment early on and refer the person for treatment.”

Raydon and EVMS plan to begin working on the implementation of the FDA program immediately and expect to release the evaluation program by Fall 2006.

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