Tests of physical abilities, such as
balance and strength, may reveal how well an elderly driver will perform on the
road, according to a new study.
Trouble with balance, weak lower limbs and
poor neck flexibility were among the attributes Australian researchers linked
to a higher risk of less-safe driving in The Journals of Gerontology: Series
A. "Although there has been a lot of research on the cognitive and visual
predictors of driving performance and safety, very little work has so far
looked at physical function and its relation to driving," said Philippe Lacherez, a post-doctoral fellow at
Queensland University of Technology who led the study.
Lacherez and his colleagues gave 270 people
between the ages of 70 and 88 a battery of physical tests to gauge their
strength, flexibility, balance, reaction times and sensory perception. Next,
the participants' driving performance was evaluated for safety.
About 17% of the participants made critical
errors while driving in a test that was scored by a professional driving
instructor and involved a range of traffic densities and complex or simple
In the physical abilities tests, the unsafe
drivers tended to have a decreased ability to move the neck, slower reaction
times, poor perception of vibration and lack of strength in the legs and feet.
Factors that were not linked with driving safety included the ability to sense
where the body or limbs are in space.
Evaluating older adults
The results are preliminary but may open a
new avenue to ways of ensuring that older drivers are safe to be on the road,
researchers said. "The study addresses an issue that is a big
concern," said Sharon Brangman, chief of geriatrics at Upstate Medical
University in Syracuse, New York. She was not involved in the study. "We
have so many (older) patients who are driving, and we don't have objective ways
to determine who should stay on the road," Brangman said.
Some US states, such as New Jersey, already
have review programmes in place that evaluate older adults and determine whether
they should continue to drive. However, there is no standardised, nationwide
approach used to evaluate driving safety.
"It would be good to have an objective
way for physicians or others to quantify whether someone really is safe behind
the wheel," said Brangman, who also noted the need for a change in
national policy to better screen and guide older drivers.
As always, older patients and their
families should talk to their doctors if they feel they or a loved one may be
an unsafe driver. This study can serve as a way to initiate that discussion,
Brangman told Reuters Health. "It's a good way to start the
conversation," she said.
And in the future, results of studies such
as this one "may provide some hard evidence that can be given to the
patient or family that could justify stopping driving."
(Picture: Senior driving from Shutterstock)