Seniors on the road

04 August 2010

Imagine plunking yourself down in the cockpit of an F-18 fighter plane with the instructions to take off. Most of us (those who aren't pilots, at least) would be overwhelmed by the plethora of blinking buttons and sophisticated instruments in front of us.

"To a lesser extent, it can be a bit like that for senior drivers when they first get behind the wheel of a luxury vehicle equipped with a backup camera, backup alarm, proximity sensors, automatic parking, GPS, fuel consumption, time-to destination data, live weather, and the like," says Paul Hagler, PhD.

The professor of speech pathology and audiology at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine is teaming up with occupational therapy professors Jan Polgar and Lynn Shaw at the University of Western Ontario to work on a tool specifically for older drivers.

"With more senior drivers and more sophisticated technologies available, it becomes important to find a match between what is available and what a particular driver wants and can handle," he explains. "Not all of the new safety oriented technologies for drivers actually makes driving safer for the older population."

Seniors are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian driving population and driving is essential for their independence. Hagler's team is putting together a questionnaire that they plan to test on 300 senior volunteers in Alberta and Ontario this summer.

The questionnaire focuses primarily on GPS and automated cruise control use, and will provide answers as to whether the technology is distracting and what can be done to make it more user-friendly. The information collected will then be indirectly passed on to the automobile industry, primarily at conferences, to inform car companies about which technologies or modifications they should make to help senior drivers.

The tool will also help older drivers make better choices in automobiles and safety features.

"Often, by the time a driver realizes there are issues that make driving the car difficult or complex, they have already completed their purchase," says Shaw. "Our goal is to provide them with a tool that will help them plan and make the right choices."

Shawn Drefs, research coordinator of the project, says that other than technology-use issues, seniors are very safe drivers.
"They self regulate," he explains. "They often won't drive at night. They often won't drive in poor conditions. They often won't drive routes they're not familiar with and often avoid rush hour. So they're actually the best segment of the population at self regulating."

The research team launched their project through AUTO21, a vehicle-related research initiative established by the Canadian Networks of Centres of Excellence program.

About the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine
As the only free standing faculty of rehabilitation in Canada, the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine balances its activities among learning, discovery and citizenship (including clinical practice). A research leader in musculoskeletal health, spinal cord injuries and common spinal disorders (back pain), the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine aims to improve the quality of life of citizens in our community. The three departments, Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT) and Speech Pathology and Audiology (SPA) offer professional entry programs. The Faculty offers thesis-based MSc and PhD programs in Rehabilitation Science, attracting students from a variety of disciplines including OT, PT, SLP, psychology, physical education, medicine and engineering.