Almost 80 per cent of elderly drivers are likely to lose control of their cars when distracted, a new study has suggested.
Scientists in Germany pitted younger drivers – aged between 20 and 30 years old – against older drivers – 65-75 years old – in a controlled computer simulation.
Participants were tasked with driving a virtual reality VW Golf for 25 miles along a realistic, winding rural road then presented with a number of distractions.
The researchers found that when asked to input numbers into a keypad – reflecting the use of a phone or in-car media screen – almost twice as many of the older group swerved out of their lane.
While 40 per cent of the 20-30-year-olds veered during the task, 78 per cent of the 65-75-year-olds did, with 15 per cent crossing into oncoming traffic, compared with none of the younger drivers.
“Research has established that distracted drivers, no matter what their age, react more slowly, take longer to spot and stop for hazards, and take more risks when driving”
Kevin Clinton, RoSPA
Lead researcher Konstantin Wechsler, of the Institute of Physiology and Anatomy at the German Sport University Cologne, said the study had important implications when it comes to accident prevention.
Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Wechsler said: “Older participants drove more slowly, more laterally and more variably than young ones, and this age difference was accentuated in the multitask-condition, particularly if the loading task took participants’ gaze and attention away from the road.
“Our findings indicate that multitasking deteriorates in older age not only in typical laboratory paradigms, but also in paradigms that require orchestration of dual-tasking and task switching. They also indicate that older drivers are at a higher risk of causing an accident when they engage in a task that takes gaze and attention away from the road.”
The study presented the drivers with a number of distractions, including memory and reasoning tasks as well as the keypad entry. While the first two tasks showed little difference in outcomes, the physical task of entering digits proved far more difficult for older drivers.
Wechsler added: “Our finding could be of substantial relevance for the driving safety of older persons since activities similar to task ‘type’ are quite common in driving: drivers often operate radios, navigation systems and other dashboard instruments, open and close windows, adjust side and rear mirrors, and on longer trips may even reach for drinks and food located elsewhere in the car cabin.”
Kevin Clinton, head of road safety for RoSPA, said that the research highlighted the dangers of distraction to all drivers.
He commented: “Research has established that distracted drivers, no matter what their age, react more slowly, take longer to spot and stop for hazards, and take more risks when driving.
“Distraction can also multiply other risk factors, such as inexperience for younger drivers or changes in health for older drivers, increasing the risk even more.
“RoSPA advises all drivers, of whatever age, to avoid using a phone or other device when driving. Let it take messages and return the calls when you’re stopped in a safe place.”
UK motoring expert Ranjen Gohri, of breakdown firm 24/7 Vehicle Rescue welcomed the study.
He said: “Long-established research has shown that the human ability to multi task declines with age.
“It’s important to stress that this research does not say that older drivers are ‘worse’ drivers than younger people, and statistically they are not.
“But it does point to them suffering a reduction in their ability to perform two unexpected tasks at the same time and to switch easily between tasks.
“And it reinforces the message that any distractions while driving can be seriously detrimental to concentration and performance, particularly when it comes to operating gadgets.”