Designing in-vehicle systems to improve safety for teens and older drivers

Elderly man driving carThe risk of dying or being seriously injured in a car crash varies with age; teens and older drivers are the two highest-risk populations on the road.

“Distracted driving is what we always hear about, but that is only one of the many risk factors,” says Nichole Morris, director of the HumanFIRST Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. Other factors include seat belt use, alcohol, speeding, and teen passengers. “We also know that many of these feed into one another, so there is no silver-bullet solution,” she says.

To help address teen driving dangers, HumanFIRST researchers developed a smartphone technology that improves safety by monitoring risky behaviors such as speeding, stop sign violations, aggressive driving maneuvers, and seat belt use and notifying a parent about them. The technology was evaluated in a study with 300 newly licensed drivers and found to be highly successful in improving teens’ driving.

Older drivers—those ages 65 and older—represent the second-highest injury and fatality rate, after younger drivers, and are first in fatalities per 100 million miles driven.

Elderly woman driving a carPhotos: Shutterstock “With the success of [teen driver] technology, we wanted to see how we could capitalize on it with other groups, and older drivers were the natural next fit,” Morris says. “We have a lot of older drivers on the roadway and the number will continue to grow as the Baby Boomer generation ages. So we wanted to know how we can adapt this system to meet the needs and limitations of an aging driver.”

In a project funded by the Roadway Safety Institute, the team began by conducting focus groups. The first group included technology-savvy older drivers who seemed resistant to the idea of an “older driver support system.” Instead, they advocated for a system that would be useful to all drivers. On the other hand, a group of non-technology-savvy older drivers was far more accepting of such a system. “I believe that this group’s participants were more open to the use of an older driver support system because they were starting to see the limit of their independence and were eager for a tool that could help them retain it,” Morris says.

Next, researchers spoke in-depth with older drivers and experts in gerontology and occupational therapy to determine what types of modifications to the teen driver support system would be needed for older drivers; these changes included more contextual information, current and upcoming speed information, and under-speed feedback. Once these changes were made, researchers conducted a driving simulation study and recorded user feedback—with surprising results.

In 2015, there were more than 40 million licensed drivers ages 65 and older, which is a 50% increase“Older drivers really liked the system, but felt most of the additions we made to support older drivers were overkill,” Morris says. “At the end of the day, there was very little that needed to change between the teen and older driver versions, and we found that older drivers can best be supported with a universally designed system that addresses the needs and risks of all drivers, not a version specifically targeted for older drivers.”

Morris cites this study as a perfect example of the scientific process at work. “If you follow the science correctly, it doesn’t always give you what you start out looking for. Our result was not the tailored product I thought we were going to end up with, but rather a universally applied design.”

Researchers tested this universally designed driving application, called RoadCoach, in a controlled field test and found it had a high rate of acceptance among older drivers. Up next: A field operational test this spring of 30 older drivers to determine if risky behaviors can be reduced over a longer time period and if acceptance of the system remains high after prolonged use.

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