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Iowa Researchers Study Distracted Driving in Older Motorists

July 28, 2018

Teenagers and millennials often get the bulk of the blame for distracted driving here in the United States. It’s true that these demographic groups’ collective familiarity with all forms of technology makes them more prone to behind-the-wheel distractions from their interactions with electronics.

But senior citizens and middle-aged motorists in and around Lexington are also susceptible to distractions while driving, albeit of a different sort.

Multitasking is a major driving distraction

Researchers in the Neurology Department at the University of Iowa studied real-world examples of the way that drivers multitask. The results were published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information. The scientists discovered that “distracter” tasks both within and outside of vehicles increases the brain’s information processing loads.

There is a minimum amount of neural resources in the brain that are necessary for the task of safe driving. Once those limits are exceeded, there is a safety-critical incident and something has got to give.

There is also evidence that motorists who are already declining cognitively might be even more susceptible to distractions while driving. Their neural resources may already be in overdrive to compensate for the naturally-occurring cognitive deficits.

Middle-aged drivers had an uptick in the variability of their steering. Senior citizens tended to drive at a lower rate of speed with lower speed variability when distracted in comparison with their middle-aged counterparts.

Senior citizens also frequently “freeze up” during safety-critical incidents and exert more effort in keeping the gas pedal steady. They also have to keep sufficient mental resources to remain situationally aware on the highway.

Keeping older drivers safe

Older driver safety is a hot topic. On one hand, no competent and legal driver should have his or her freedom unfairly curtailed simply due to age.

On the other: “competent and legal driver.” That’s the crux of the problem, as senior citizens may no longer possess the physical and cognitive integrity to continue driving safely.

The intersection of distraction and driving

Drivers have to do all sorts of things simultaneously, including:

  • Navigating
  • Merging
  • Passing
  • Tracking other vehicles on the road
  • Driving at a safe speed
  • Steering
  • Obeying traffic signs and signals

All of these actions should be done smoothly by drivers. But the neural load gets taxed once you factor in added distractions such as:

  • Lighting cigarettes
  • Fiddling with the A/C or heat controls
  • Adjusting the sound system
  • Talking on a cellphone
  • Interacting with a GPS or navigational system
  • Talking to passengers

Driving takes a high level of executive functioning, e.g., working memory and selective attention, both of which decline naturally with age. Unnecessary distractions for drivers of any age cause and contribute to a high number of collisions all over Kentucky.

Was your collision caused by a distracted driver?

Irrespective of the type of distraction, if you know or suspect that another motorist’s distracted driving was a factor in the wreck that injured you, you may be able to pursue compensation from the at-fault driver. A Lexington car accident attorney can help you through the legal process.