Keeping seniors behind the wheel

Posted on Thursday, March 3, 2016

According to Statistics Canada, preliminary estimates show that, on July 1, 2015, for the first time, there were more persons in Canada aged 65 years and older than children aged 0 to 14 years.

The time is right to think seriously about aging. That’s why we went to the Laboratory of Cognitive Aging to meet Sylvain Gagnon, who is carrying out research on the topic. 

Q: What are you researching at the Laboratory of Cognitive Aging?
A: Here at the laboratory we are able to study a universal phenomenon — aging. We are particularly interested in the impact of aging on cognition, from both a basic and applied perspective. We are examining how certain changes in cognitive processes caused by aging can explain seniors’ driving performance.

Q: Why focus on driving?
A: The topic is particularly interesting because, for North Americans, driving a car is not just a means to get from one point to another. It’s also synonymous with freedom, independence and quality of life.

Q: So you test seniors’ performance behind the wheel?
R: Exactly. We use a virtual driving simulator that allows us to conduct research in situations that closely replicate real driving situations. Over the past 10 years, we’ve been able to test over 700 participants, over half aged 65 and over.

Q: What is the purpose of the simulator?
A: The purpose of the simulator is to paint a portrait of the typical senior driver, to document the cognitive demands associated with both normal and difficult driving situations, to determine whether the simulator can provide reliable data concerning accident risk.  The laboratory allows us to study situations of varying degrees of risk without the dangers of real driving.

Q: What will you do with these results?
A: Our work is helping to develop a risk assessment model for older drivers, to offer health professionals a standardized tool for analysis based on well-considered research criteria. Until now, there has been no standardized means to effectively distinguish risky drivers from safe ones.

Q: Other than the decline in cognitive and sensorimotor functions, what are the issues for seniors who wish to drive?
A: What’s interesting with older drivers is what we call the “stereotype threat.” Our research has shown that when seniors are exposed to negative age-related stereotypes (for example, letting them believe that seniors are involved in more accidents than other age groups, which is not true) before they have a simulator session, their reactions differ significantly from those who have not be exposed in advance to negative messages.  We have concluded that stereotypes (or negative images) of older drivers may have a direct impact on their reactions behind the wheel and, ultimately, on their decision whether or not to drive. It’s important to counter these stereotypes and to recognize that age is not a reliable indicator of driver skill.

Q: What is your mission?
A: I would like my research to contribute to improving knowledge regarding senior drivers so that they can hang onto their independence and quality of life as long as possible. This depends on both a more sophisticated analysis of their driving skill and a proactive approach towards the question of driving and seniors, which would include measures to improve their reactions behind the wheel. 

Media inquiries

Mila Roy
Media Relations Officer
University of Ottawa
Cell: 613-762-2908
mila.roy@uOttawa.ca

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