U. LEEDS (UK) —Driving in the middle lane is a built-in mechanism older adults use to stay safe behind the wheel.
A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance shows how older people naturally adapt when they can no longer move with the freedom they once had. The finding could offer new ways of helping patients recover after losing motor skills, for example, after a stroke.
Aging causes the body to respond more slowly and movements to become less precise. To see how this might affect performance behind the wheel, researchers from the University of Leeds compared the motor skills of healthy younger adults, between the ages of 18 and 40, with a group of people who were older than 60.
For the study, participants using a touch-screen laptop were asked to trace wiggly lines of varying widths—slowly, quickly, and at their own preferred pace. They were also asked to steer along “virtual” winding roads when sitting in a driving simulator.
Older adults made allowances for their age by adopting a “middle-of-the-road” strategy in both tests. This meant they remained well inside the wiggly lines when tracing, and stayed in the middle of the road lines when driving. Younger participants, in contrast, had a greater tendency to cut corners.
But, when study participants were asked to drive faster in the simulator and to follow narrower paths, all tended to cut corners more—regardless of their age.
“Our results suggest that this compensation strategy is a general phenomenon and not just tied to driving. It seems older people naturally adjust their movements to compensate for their reduced level of skill,” says postgraduate researcher Rachel Raw, lead author of the study.
“But this compensation can only take you so far, and when conditions are difficult, perhaps because of snow or hail, or when driving at night time on poorly lit roads, older adults can struggle,” she says.
“It is important to establish what strategies are adopted by older drivers in order to ensure their safety—as well as the safety of other road users.” says psychology researcher Richard Wilkie, who supervised the work.
“More generally, understanding how older people learn to adapt to a diminished level of skill has implications for our approach to rehabilitating patients with reduced movement, for instance, after a stroke.”
The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and Remedi.
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