- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

A new computer-based driving simulator that can objectively identify brain impairments in elderly drivers shows potential for reducing deadly crashes.

The simulator will be on the market soon, and with a massive population shift under way, that’s welcome news for all drivers.

Crash rates for drivers 75 or older are second only to rates for drivers younger than 24, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. With the population of the elderly expected to double from 35 million to 70 million in less than 20 years, their involvement in fatal crashes by 2030 is expected to increase by 155 percent.

“As the population ages, the percentage of older drivers increases, and declining driver competence becomes an urgent public health problem,” said Barbara Freund, associate professor of internal medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk and director of clinical research at its geriatrics division.

In an interview, she cited some of the “sensational” cases of unsafe driving by elderly people that were in the news in recent years. Perhaps the best known occurred in July 2003, when an 86-year-old man driving a Buick ran down and killed 10 persons when he sped through the Santa Monica, Calif., farmers’ market.

Mrs. Freund disclosed that 25 percent of the elderly “who are cognitively impaired are undiagnosed,” which means they still may be on the road.

The simulators should be commercially available for use by departments of motor vehicles nationwide in the next six months, thanks to an agreement between a specialist on elderly drivers at EVMS and Raydon Corp. of Daytona Beach, Fla., a leading manufacturer of driving simulators.

A prototype in use at EVMS screens a dozen older drivers weekly. The elderly drivers, referred by doctors and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, had a test failure rate of 38 percent in the past several months.

Scott Schrecengost, business development manager at Raydon, said the simulator hardware will cost about $25,000, but he expects most will be leased on a “pay per use” basis.

Older “experienced” drivers, he said, will be analyzed for speed and lane positions “30 times a second” and will be tracked for driving tasks such as speed in making turns, stopping before intersections and railroad tracks, use of turn signals and driving in improper gear.

“One big thing we have to check on is to make sure a driver’s foot is not on the brake and the gas at the same time. We have a lot of two-footed drivers,” Mr. Schrecengost said.

Mrs. Freund said she also noted that older drivers found to have dementia err in “driving down the lane of oncoming traffic rather frequently.”

“In general, older drivers are safe drivers,” Mrs. Freund said. But because the amount of miles they drive tend to be low, she said, it makes their driving records look worse than most other populations.

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