(Not-so) Risky business: Innovative assessments for drivers

UAlberta research maximizes independence and road safety with new cognitive assessment for aging drivers.

Julie Naylor - 25 November 2019

It may be a conversation you've considered having with an aging loved one: how do you know if it's no longer safe for them to drive on their own? It's a complicated question of growing importance with Canadians living longer and a growing aging population-and it's one that University of Alberta psychologists and spin-off DriveABLE are taking on with new research.

Established as a university spin-off, DriveABLE has been providing driver risk assessments across North America, New Zealand and South Korea for more than 15 years.

With deep roots in UAlberta research, DriveABLE's goal is to protect competent drivers, identify cognitively unsafe drivers, and help improve safety on our roads.

Safety in numbers

This idea was born when a team of physicians asked Allen Dobbs (psychology) to develop a driving assessment that would help them make the drive-or-no-drive decision for patients.

"Physicians see many patients who have cognitive impairments due to dementia or other illness, and despite their decline in mental abilities, they are still driving," explains Dobbs, now a professor emeritus.

"Diagnosis itself is a poor predictor of driving competence, and at the time, there were no validated tests to assess when the illness had made the patient no longer safe to drive."

Dobbs' goal? To discover a scientifically defensible way to evaluate the driving safety of those whose cognitive abilities had been compromised.

When he set out to develop an in-car driving assessment, it became clear that some cognitively impaired drivers were too dangerous to be tested on public roadways. Dobbs realized it was essential to develop a test that was highly predictive of actual in-car performance but could be administered in the safety of an office setting-without the need for accessing public roadways.

Dobbs and his team recruited three groups of volunteers-a group of dementia patients who were still driving and likely to be a danger on the road, a group of age-matched cognitively normal drivers, and a healthy group of younger drivers.

"By comparing the driving errors of the three groups, we could isolate the kinds of unsafe driving errors made exclusively, or with a higher frequency, by the dementia patients," explains Dobbs. "This told us what to score during a driving evaluation.

"Our breakthrough was recognizing that driving required multiple cognitive skills concurrently-memory, spatial judgments, attention, etcetera, and that executing a test in a safe office environment could simulate the experience while ensuring the safety of the driver and others on the road."

Using a variety of statistical procedures, Dobbs developed a way to combine scores from those tests to provide a single outcome measure that resulted in a strong predictor of actual road-test performance.

The birth of DriveABLE

The entire study took approximately eight years. And once the research was published, Dobbs was encouraged to champion a spin-off company that would transition the research results into practice. "We believed that the assessment could make a substantial contribution to road safety in Alberta and elsewhere," he recalls. "So some of my research staff and I decided to accept the challenge."

The result was DriveABLE, which at the time was the only assessment system worldwide that assessed a driver based on the level of cognitive impairment caused by their medical condition.

Taking up the torch

Driving has been a consistent theme throughout Singhal's life. The avid car enthusiast even once drove a cab to pay for his tuition. His graduate work saw him working with the Canadian Space Agency to develop a multi-tasking instrument for testing on the space station for eventual human adaptation for a human mission to Mars.

Singhal now drives the future as chair of the Department of Psychology, which serves roughly 13,000 students representing roughly one-third of the entire undergraduate student population at UAlberta. The department ranks near the top 100 in the world for the study of psychology.

Fast forward 15 years, and the partnership between DriveABLE and University of Alberta researchers has continued to flourish.

Anthony Singhal (psychology) has carried on where Dobbs left off, expanding beyond driver assessments to develop reliable testing that takes into account a multitude of influences and can be applied to any skilled environment, be it operating a train, LRT, or heavy machinery.

"The early studies led by Dobbs looked at the relationships between cognition as objectively measured by tests and on road performance," says Singhal. "We are working towards blueprinting the definition of impairment-not just for driving, but for any situation that requires focus."

Singhal, along with postdoctoral research associate Reyhaneh Bakhtiari and graduate student Michelle Tomczak, has harnessed the power of machine learning for predictive modeling, using data sets supplied by DriveABLE as well as results from his own controlled experiments to determine if identifying certain aspects of cognitive performance would be predictive of passing a road test. The research focuses on the complexity of human behaviour and performance as our brain activity is influenced by different factors.

"For instance, we are now determining specific ways an elderly brain is different than a brain on drugs and how both are different from younger brains not on drugs," Singhal explains. "Looking at how cognitive performance is influenced from all angles will allow us to build an algorithm to predict what should be tested to determine risk."

Singhal wants to take the research one step further to include other kinds of studies-collecting brain waves and using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-and accessing other populations through DriveABLE and their network of partners to inform the analysis.

Roots in research

For their part, DriveABLE continues to take great pride in their strong connection to research.

"Science is the foundation of everything we do," says Aaron Granley ('04 BA, '07 BCom), vice president of research and development for DriveABLE. "The fundamental question we have always been trying to answer is how cognition relates to any safety-sensitive scenario- where one needs to pay attention, perform a task accurately, and perform well to be safe in the environment."

Granley notes that DriveABLE's strength lies in connecting with their partners, such as UAlberta, to leverage expertise and get the answers needed to some of the big, and new, impairment questions. Over the last four years, Granley has seen a significant shift in the way people and organizations not only talk about impairment and risk but also deal with it.

"We are not focused on one thing," he says. "There are complex scenarios and problems and we need to figure these out. Research can be hyper specialized, and we need to broadly expand that and work with a market that has varying needs and scenarios.

"Science is always changing, and so are markets. If you are not pushing to improve or find the next level, you are not going to be relevant in a year or two."

The Faculty of Science is proud to foster a culture of innovation, putting research into action to improve safety, quality of life, and create new technologies. Our strong track record of successful spin-off companies includes DriveABLE, Applied Quantum Materials, MedRoad, Nanolog Audio, Quantum Silicon Inc., Resolved Instruments, and 48Hr Discovery, among others. And Faculty of Science students are also leaders in turning research into real world ideas through the Student Innovation Centre-where student groups AlbertaSat, the UAlberta International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team, NeurAlbertaTech, and more embrace the culture of innovation outside the classroom.