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Putting senior drivers to the test

How old is too old to drive? Simulation software takes new approach to testing the effects of aging on driving

Published April 29, 2013

KINGSTON, ONT.—Software designers Jonathan Diamond and Martin York won’t be competing with Grand Theft Auto or Gran Turismo anytime soon.

But their York Driving Simulator, available in both Highway and Urban variants, could have a significant impact on seniors around the world.

Their Kingston-based company, called York Computer Technologies, has developed a simulation program that allows researchers to evaluate the effects of aging on the task of driving.

Despite Diamond’s academic credentials — he’s a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Queen’s University — he is the business brains behind the firm.

Co-founder York supplies the corporate name, and is the technical expert. He’s been developing driving-simulation software for more than 20 years, mostly on his own time as a hobby.

The York simulator has already drawn interest from researchers in Canada, the U.S., Europe and Singapore, an example of Canadian technology taking on the world.

One of those researchers is Lindy Kilik, a professor of geriatric psychiatry at Queen’s, who has been using the York system to evaluate the effects of dementia on driving.

She says many patients with dementia can still drive, but their ability to react correctly to changing conditions or unfamiliar situations can be impaired. The simulator helps measure how impaired these drivers are.

“Driving is freedom, especially to elderly people,” she notes. “Taking it away can affect their lives, and those of their caregivers.”

“That said; we must protect the general public,” she adds. “It can be traumatic to have elderly people fail a driving test. Having them assessed by a computer program actually seems to be easier for them to accept.”

Poll: Are you too old to drive if you’re 80? We ask our readers

Obviously, as our physical and mental faculties deteriorate, so does our ability to drive a car.

Young drivers are still statistically the worst. More accurately, that should be new drivers, since just about everybody’s first year of driving is their most dangerous, regardless of how old they are.

We generally do get better as we age, until somewhere around retirement age, when that trend starts to reverse itself. The issue is compounded by the fact the baby boom generation is now moving into that statistical bump.

So the question becomes: how bad is bad enough that drivers’ licences should be revoked? And how do we determine that?

Ontario used to have a mandatory road test for people over 80, but that was dropped years ago. Now, you get your vision checked, take a written test, and get interviewed in a group by an examiner. If you can walk and chew gum at the same time, you can drive home.

The York Driving Simulator may offer a more objective, and more reliable, way to determine driving fitness.

As the resident old guy on the Wheels writing team, I was assigned to give the simulator a test drive.

York cautioned me not to expect X-box graphic quality — making the simulator too fancy would add to the cost, and researchers everywhere are under stringent budget pressure.

And because every move the driver makes — steering wheel, accelerator, brake — is recorded and stored for analysis, the simpler the data stream, the more manageable the data set.

The York system is also designed to be used on a wide variety of computer platforms, so graphic glamour is sacrificed for flexibility.

The simulator lets researchers build their own virtual driving environment, with roads, buildings and other components to help answer whatever questions they have. The routes I drove would have been quite familiar to Kingston residents.

It did take some acclimatization to learn the system. In the configuration I tested (a Windows version), the console included a real car seat with a seat belt, a steering wheel, and brake and accelerator pedals.

There is just one screen, giving you a semi-wide-angle view of what’s in front of you. To see to your right or left, you have to pull back on steering-wheel paddles, which are where some cars have their gear-shift paddles. And there were neither side-view nor rear-view mirrors.

I’ve tried other simulators that had multiple screens and more realistic controls, which gave a more faithful visual representation of driving.

But after a few minutes, I was easily suspending my disbelief and could understand when I was driving well, and when not so well.

To start the test, you hit one of the buttons on the steering wheel, press the gas pedal, and off you go.

The road peels beneath you, as the streetscape unfolds. Cars appear at cross-streets and in oncoming lanes, there are curves, traffic lights, and stop signs, the sort of things you would encounter in normal urban driving.

I half expected dogs to come running out across the street or other surprises, but they either weren’t there, or I missed them completely. I bet they could be programmed in if the researcher wanted.

You are also aware of being watched, at least initially. But I managed to complete the test without crashing into anything. And they didn’t call the cops to prevent me from driving home, so I guess I couldn’t have done too badly.

They did capture my data, but didn’t analyze it on the spot. Again, no police officer has come to my house demanding the surrender of my licence. So, I guess I passed.

For now, Diamond says the simulator is aimed at the research community, with a basic price of $5,000. It would be possible to create a variation that provinces could use to evaluate drivers — replacing the former real road test with a simulated one.

However, there are no plans for a simplified home version that, for example, could be used by adult children or other caregivers to determine if their elderly parents should perhaps give up their licences.

But it’s early days, and there are probably many avenues this software could follow.

Getting back to the aging thing: car crashes rank at the very top of reasons why people don’t get to grow old. Accidental trauma (of which car crashes are the largest component) is the number-one cause of premature death up to age 44, when various diseases start to take over.

It’s about time our society started taking more steps to reduce this toll. The York Driving Simulator is aimed at a small slice of the problem.

With files from Karissa Donkin

Watch a video of the driving simulator test, below

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