Older Drivers Adapt Their Thinking to Improve Road Hazard Detection

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A recent study finds that older drivers showed adaptive responses according to the amount of traffic in a driving scene when identifying road hazards. Although younger drivers are faster and more accurate at identifying driving hazards than older drivers, older drivers were capable of adapting their response criteria to help them identify road hazards when the amount of traffic in a driving scene increased.

“This work shows that older adults are still adaptive, displaying mental flexibility in responding to changes in their driving environment,” says Jing Feng, an assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper on the work.

For this study, researchers developed a program called the Driver Aware Task, which allows scientists to study the attention of drivers using driving images. The Driver Aware Task was used with 16 younger adults (ages 21-30) and 21 older adults (ages 65-79).

Using the Driver Aware Task, researchers compared how sensitive younger and older drivers are to hazards in driving images, as well as their tendency to miss hazards or have false alarms. Younger drivers showed no difference between the low- and high-traffic situations. However, older drivers shifted the criteria they used to identify potential hazards. Older drivers were more likely to commit false alarms – reporting a hazard when the hazard was absent – in high-traffic situations.

This increase in false alarms is likely because older adults modified the criteria so they were less likely to miss road hazards.

“Older adults are adapting to changes in their environment, whereas younger adults are not – possibly because they don’t have to,” says HeeSun Choi, a former Ph.D. student at NC State and a co-author on the paper. “In other words, there is an attempt by older drivers to compensate for age-related change. This flexibility is a good thing. For example, it means there is potential for training that could help older adults adapt to changing driving conditions.”

The paper, “Adaptive Response Criteria in Road Hazard Detection Among Older Drivers,” is published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention. The paper was co-authored by Fergus Craik, Brian Levine, Sylvain Moreno and Gary Naglie of the Rotman Research Institute; and Motao Zhu of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Adaptive Response Criteria in Road Hazard Detection Among Older Drivers”

Authors: Jing Feng and HeeSun Choi, North Carolina State University; Fergus I.M. Craik, Brian Levine, Sylvain Moreno and Gary Naglie, Rotman Research Institute; Motao Zhu, The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital

Published: Sept. 12, Traffic Injury Prevention

DOI: 10.1080/15389588.2017.1373190


Objectives: The majority of existing investigations on attention, aging, and driving have focused on the negative impacts of age-related declines in attention on hazard detection and driver performance. However, driving skills and behavioral compensation may accommodate the negative effects that age-related attentional decline places on driving performance. In this study, we examined an important question that had been largely neglected in the literature linking attention, aging, and driving: can top-down factors such as behavioral compensation, specifically adaptive response criteria, accommodate the negative impacts from age-related attention declines on hazard detection during driving?

Methods: In the experiment, we used the Drive Aware Task, a task combining the driving context with well-controlled laboratory procedures measuring attention. We compared younger (n = 16, age 21 – 30) and older (n = 21, age 65 – 79) drivers on their attentional processing of hazards in driving scenes, indexed by percentage of correct response and reaction time of hazard detection, as well as sensitivity and response criterion using the signal detection analysis.

Results: Older drivers, in general, were less accurate and slower on the task than younger drivers. However, results from this experiment revealed that older, but not younger, drivers adapted their response criteria when the traffic condition changed in the driving scenes. When there was more traffic in the driving scene, older drivers became more liberal in their responses, meaning that they were more likely to report that a driving hazard was detected.

Conclusions: Older drivers adopt compensatory strategies on hazard detection during driving. Our findings showed that, in the driving context, even at an old age our attentional functions are still adaptive according to environmental conditions. This leads to considerations on potential training methods to promote adaptive strategies which may help older drivers maintain performance in road hazard detection.

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