UI study to research effects of new technologies on elderly drivers


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As of 2011, 13.3 percent of the U.S. population is age 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The population of the country is getting older, and this affects several aspects, including safety on the road. 

Over the next three years the University of Iowa Aging Minds and Brain Initiative will test the responses of 60 different people to advanced driving-assistance systems — systems built into vehicles designed to help drivers be safer — such as warnings about a car swerving into the next lane.

Thirty of the test subjects will be between the ages of 30 and 55 and the other 30 will be age 65 or older. The study will focus specifically on the responses of the older age group. 

UI psychology Professor Shaun Vecera, a co-principal investigator for the study, said the concern is the advanced technology placed in cars may distract older drivers more than help them.

“Older individuals can attend to something just fine, but when it comes to moving attention, they’re kind of stuck,” he said. 

UI Professor Matthew Rizzo, the principal investigator for the study, said many advanced features require drivers to shift their focus rather quickly. For example, a feature may warn a driver of an upcoming stop sign. The warning could distract an older driver, and if something unexpected occurred, such as a car in front of the driver stopping suddenly, the older driver may not react quickly enough, causing a collision.

“The question is, how much does it help them and how long does it take for them to be overloaded on technology,” Rizzo said. 

Nazan Aksan, a UI associate research scientist and co-principal investigator for the study, said the research subjects will sit through four mock drives in the simulator for interdisciplinary research in ergonomics and neuroscience, located in the UI Hospitals & Clinics. Then they will participate in one mapped out drive in a real car, as well as undergo one psychological test. 

UI Center for Aging Director Robert Wallace said the work done by the Aging Mind and Brain Initiative is likely to benefit the older generations of America by discovering ways to make driving safer. 

“Most of the research we do has an impact nationally, and we’re proud of the fact that we can have an impact on not only older Iowans but also older Americans," he said. 

According to the Iowa Department on Aging, 452,888 Iowa citizens are age 65 or older, nearly 15 percent of the population of Iowa.

The hope of the study is to determine how the older population responds to different types of sensors and advanced technology in comparison to the younger population and use the data collected to help the auto industry better design and market their vehicles. 

“It is that the goal of projects like this is to safely extend mobility of elderly," Nazan said. "Our hope is that when challenges of the elderly are better understood, better systems can be built that help them negotiate difficult driving tasks."

The Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center will fund the study with $1.8 million as well as contribute its knowledge and technology to assist research. Its partnership with the UI is one of the company’s newest out of 16. 

Brian Lyons, a spokesman for the Toyota center, said at this early stage of the study, officials are unsure exactly what Toyota will doing in collaboration with the UI, but they are certain that it will provide its resources and expertise. 

With its many partnerships with universities and institutions across the country, Toyota wants to improve safety on the road and share its results of the research with the industry.

“We’re focusing on areas that help protect our most vulnerable populations,” Lyons said, speaking of children, the elderly, and pedestrians.

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