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Older drivers are distracted by navigational devices, study says

SATURDAY, June 16, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- They're designed to help motorists find the best way to their destinations. But, in the sometimes-slower hands of older drivers, those nifty navigational devices that come with many new cars may only lead the way to an accident.

That's the conclusion of recent research showing that when it comes to tasks involving "telematics products," like the navigational systems, drivers between 65 and 75 years old perform much slower than drivers in the 18- to 30-year-old range.

"The differences between older and younger drivers is very substantial," says Paul Green, senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. "Depending on the task, it can take older drivers twice as long to do something, or they'll make twice as many mistakes."

Because many drivers try to use such devices while they're driving, that difference in time can be dangerous because motorists should be keeping their eyes on the road, Green says.

And because older drivers can be a prime target market for these devices, Green adds, it's essential that manufacturers consider the safety of senior citizens when testing their products.

"If the manufacturer has a product that they think older drivers could use, then older drivers must be included in the test sample because they're the ones who are going to have the most difficulty using these products," he says. "To get a bunch of young engineers to try it and say, 'Oh, that's fine,' is a big mistake."

Green's findings, presented at the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine's recent conference on aging and driving, were based on various experiments comparing the response times of older and younger drivers.

In one experiment, drivers in mock vehicles watched a typical expressway scene, with road signs, passing cars and flashing brake lights. They also had to press a key whenever a triangle-shaped warning icon appeared on a windshield. The older drivers took 40 percent longer to respond to the warnings than younger drivers.

But that doesn't automatically translate into danger, says Dan Foley, a staff research scientist at the National Institute on Aging.

"Older people are compensating," Foley says. "They do have slower reaction times, but if you put that in the context of driving, they tend to compensate for that by reducing their speed and distance between vehicles."

Foley notes that the highest insurance premiums are paid not by older drivers, but by younger people who not only have less experience but tend to drive faster. And it's the younger drivers who are more likely to use gadgets like navigational devices and cell phones while behind the wheel.

"Most older drivers have never used these things before. And they're not comfortable starting now when they've done fine driving their entire lives without them," he says.

Green says the best advice for any driver intrigued by the devices is to use them while stopped, rather than moving.

"One of the main things we've pushed for is that people not [program in] destinations when they drive," he says. "Do all of that while you're parked. Because, depending on the system, it could take an elderly person a minute or so to complete, and you don't want to do that when you're moving."

What to Do: Read more about issues concerning senior citizens in these HealthDay stories. Or visit the National Institute on Aging.

SOURCES: Interviews with Paul Green, Ph.D., senior research scientist, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Ann Arbor; Dan Foley, epidemiologist, staff research scientist, National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Md.; University of Michigan press release
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