(Reuters Health) – Researchers will soon be tracking 3,000 senior drivers as part of an unprecedented project to better understand the safety and transportation needs of aging Americans.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is directing $12 million to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health so researchers there can study driving behavior and health factors affecting older drivers for the next five years.
This latest phase in the foundation’s Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project is expected to clarify the effects of risk factors, like prescription drug use and deteriorating vision, on driving. The study will also explore decisions to stop driving, and mobility options for seniors who no longer drive.
“We honestly don’t feel that if you were to interview traffic safety experts, they would admit that we know enough today about how to absolutely guarantee that we can provide the best guidance services, training and vehicle design to take into consideration limitations older drivers may have,” said Peter Kissinger, CEO of the AAA Foundation.
This month, five study sites in California, Colorado, Maryland, Michigan and New York will begin recruiting drivers between the ages 65 and 79. Their vehicles will be fitted with GPS devices to capture real time driving patterns; the data will let researchers assess maneuvers they make, along with where and when seniors choose to drive. Traffic and accident records will also be followed. Participants must receive yearly medical examinations to measure physical and cognitive functions.
“It’s a very comprehensive data collection,” said Columbia University epidemiologist Guohua Li, the LongROAD project’s principal investigator. “We want to be ahead of the curve to address emerging issues rather than looking back and relying on retrospective data.”
Little data exists about the relationship between aging and driving safety, and the National Institute on Aging has identified this knowledge gap as a key strategic priority. Study researchers say doctors and families often rely on anecdotal evidence when encouraging older patients or loved ones to stop or limit driving.
Li says the most critical outcomes of the new study will be assessments of medication impact on driving safety, and evaluations of emerging vehicle technologies that benefit older drivers, like cameras, navigation systems and crash warning signals.
“Seniors need to be protected more in a vehicle,” said Kara Macek of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “Due to their fragility, their bodies are not always able to withstand the same amount of force the older they get.”
Macek said seniors are not poor drivers, as they are often represented to be. In many cases, they may even be more cautious as they make up for other abilities that diminish with age. Teens remain the most over-represented population in vehicle crashes in terms of volume, and until now, they have been the AAA Foundation’s largest investment in research.
Dr. Alice Pomidor, chair of the American Geriatrics Society Public Education Committee, believes the project will ultimately allow more aging Americans to remain mobile.
“We want to try to let people drive as long as possible, because driving is such a critical component to life in the United States,” Pomidor said. “Getting a car means you have come of age and you are independent. Asking someone to relinquish that is pretty much asking someone to relinquish independence. Many see it as the first step in a long slippery slope to landing in the nursing home.”
Safely staying behind the wheel is often essential to overall health, she said. When seniors relinquish car keys, they often become depressed. Nutrition sometimes suffers, as there is no good way to travel to a grocery store - or to a doctor.
Participants will receive modest compensation for their five-year commitment and willingness to be tracked on the roads.
“The data collected could be very, very important to senior participants and relevant to their peers,” Li said. “There’s a societal benefit to participation in this project.”