Public Release: 

Mid-lane driving helps older adults stay safe

University of Leeds

It's official: older adults are naturally inclined to drive in the middle of the road, leaving the younger generation to cut corners.

This tendency to sit mid-lane is an in-built safety mechanism that helps pensioners stay safe behind the wheel, according to researchers at the University of Leeds, UK.

The findings of the study, which are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology Human Perception and Performance, have shown how older people naturally adapt when they can no longer move with the freedom they once had. Researchers hope that the work will be used to find new ways of helping patients recover lost 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, a team from the University of Leeds' Institute of Psychological Sciences compared the motor skills of healthy younger adults, aged between 18 and 40, with a group of over-60s.

Using a touch-screen laptop, participants 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.

The researchers found that the 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.

However, 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," said 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 said.

"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." said psychology researcher Dr 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."

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The research was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Remedi.

For more information:

Contact: Paula Gould, University of Leeds Communications & Press Office: Tel 44-113-343-8059, email p.a.gould@leeds.ac.uk

Notes for Editors

1. Raw RK et al, 'Movement control in older adults: does old age mean middle of the road?' Journal of Experimental Psychology Human Perception and Performance. Advance online publication [doi: 10.1037/a0026568].

2. [additional quote from study participant, Kathleen Dawson (81)]; '[I felt] that at some points I was being forced to drive too quickly' Kathleen said. 'However, I was happy to take part because I realised the importance of this type of research. It was explained to me that in learning how healthy people 'work' it helps scientists and doctors to provide new methods and means for treating people with movement problems'.

3. [additional quote from study participant, Lillian Watson (75)]: 'I enjoyed being shown around the Labs and I felt privileged to be asked to take part in research. The findings also interest me because in hindsight - when I was in the simulator I did actively try to stay in the middle of the path for fear of going outside of the lines. The faster it got, the more I had to concentrate on doing that!'

4. One of the UK's largest medical, health and bioscience research bases, the University of Leeds delivers world leading research in medical engineering, cancer, cardiovascular studies, epidemiology, molecular genetics, musculoskeletal medicine, dentistry, psychology and applied health. Treatments and initiatives developed in Leeds are transforming the lives of people worldwide with conditions such as diabetes, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. http://www.leeds.ac.uk

5. For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. http://www.mrc.ac.uk

6. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via research Councils UK.

7. REMEDI is a British medical research charity based in London which sponsors initial stage research into all aspects of rehabilitation and disability stemming from a wide variety of causes such as cancer, cerebral palsy and stroke. The goal of researchers sponsored by REMEDI is to develop different ways to give survivors a decent semblance of normal life and the opportunity to return to work with improved treatments whilst still living with their medical condition. REMEDI's efforts over its 35 years of operation have made a huge difference in jump starting projects. In the last 15 years, REMEDI has awarded £4million pounds to researchers.

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