KEEPING older drivers safely on the road for longer is the goal of a North East research project.
Newcastle University has devised a special car which monitors concentration, stress levels and motoring habits while the driver is at the wheel.
The findings are being used to develop new technologies to support older drivers.
The university’s Intelligent Transport team has converted an electric car into a mobile laboratory.
Dubbed “DriveLAB”, the car is kitted out with tracking systems, eye trackers and bio-monitors in an effort to understand the challenges faced by older drivers and to identify where stress points lie.
Research shows that giving up driving is one of the key factors responsible for a decline in health and well-being among older people, leading to increased isolation and inactivity.
Led by Phil Blythe, Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems, the Newcastle team is investigating in-vehicle technologies which they hope could help motorists continue driving into later life.
These include navigation tools, night vision systems and intelligent speed adaptations.
Prof Blythe said: “For many older people, particularly those living alone or in rural areas, driving is essential for maintaining their independence, giving them the freedom to get out and about without having to rely on others.
“But we all have to accept that as we get older our reactions slow down and this often results in people avoiding any potentially challenging driving conditions and losing confidence in their driving skills. The result is that people stop driving before they really need to.
“What we are doing is to look at ways of keeping people driving safely for longer, which in turn boosts independence and keeps us socially connected.”
Funded by Research Councils UK’s digital economy programme, the research is part of the social inclusion through the digital economy (SiDE) project, a £12m research hub led by Newcastle University.
Using the new DriveLAB as well as the university’s driving simulator, the team has been working with older people from across the North East and Scotland to understand their driving habits and fears, and look at ways of overcoming them.
By incorporating the eye tracker and bio-monitor with the driving simulator the team can monitor eye movement, speed, reaction, lane position, acceleration, braking and driving efficiency.
Leading researcher Dr Amy Guo said: “The DriveLAB is helping us to understand what the key stress triggers and difficulties are for older drivers and how we might use technology to address these problems.
“For example, most of us would expect older drivers always go slower than everyone else but surprisingly, we found that in 30mph zones they struggled to keep at a constant speed and so were more likely to break the speed limit and be at risk of getting fined.
“We’re looking at the benefits of systems which control your speed as a way of preventing that.”
Another solution is a tailored SatNav which identifies the safest route – such as avoiding right turns and dual carriageways – and which uses pictures as turning cues, such as a post box or pub.
Researcher Chris Emmerson said: “One thing that came out of the focus groups was that while the older generation is often keen to try new technologies, it’s their lack of experience with, and confidence in, digital technologies which puts them off. Also, they felt most were designed with younger people in mind.”
Edmund King, AA president and Visiting Professor of Transport at Newcastle University, said: “The car is a lifeline for many older people as it helps keep them mobile, independent and connected to friends and family. “We feel that the pioneering work of DriveLAB will help with technological solutions to ensure that older drivers stay safer behind the wheel.”
The work is being presented at the Aging, Mobility and Quality of Life conference in Michigan in June.
The driving simulator is also being used to look at how distractions such as answering a mobile phone, sending a text or eating can affect driving.