What’s required to be safe and how driving simulators can help
In honor of Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, let’s look at the top 5 components required for seniors and safe driving.
• Motor Planning
• Visual Acuity
• Problem Solving
• Reasoning and Judgment
• Working Memory
Motor Planning. To operate a vehicle, we need our brain to connect with our body to facilitate movement. This is true not just for senior driving, but all those driving. In the therapy world this is called motor planning. Often, we see challenges in the senior population with delays in processing information resulting in a slower body response time. Accidents may occur because of delays in response to hazards in the road, the ability to move your foot off the gas pedal, or the inability to coordinate body movements smoothly to operate the vehicle.
Visual acuity. This is another term for our ability to see objects of varying distances, the details of those objects, and our visual clarity. For many drivers, visual acuity diminishes with weather conditions such as rain, nighttime driving, or with medical conditions affecting our eyesight. Many seniors choose to drive in daytime hours only as they have a decrease in visual acuity.
The next three components of driving safely fall under the broad category of executive functioning. This is a therapy term utilized to describe our ability to plan, problem solve, focus our attention, remember directions, and complete multiple tasks simultaneously. When driving, we need to be able to solve problems such as detours in our route, implement good judgement and reasoning when paying attention to speed limits and busy intersections, and remembering how to navigate within our community or new environments. Any one of these tasks can prove difficult for senior drivers if they have cognitive challenges.
So how can Occupational Therapy and Driving Simulators help?
First, seek out a licensed occupational therapist for a therapy evaluation to address any of the challenge areas listed above. Through a series of standardized assessments, the therapist will gain insight into the client’s physical and cognitive abilities.
Once a plan is created with the client’s goals in mind, therapists can utilize a driving simulator to facilitate real-time scenarios. Clients can practice driving in a variety of settings, day or night, with opportunities to respond to hazards and environmental changes. By using a driving simulator, seniors can feel confident in their ability to continue with safe driving or acknowledge the time is right to hang up their car keys and join the world of ride share apps.
The latter scenario can often be a difficult conversation to have for both the patient and their family members. Driving represents independence for most people, so coming to terms with the loss of that freedom is a major life-changing experience. However, use of a driving simulator, such as STISIM Drive, can make that a much easier conversation, as it offers an objective evaluation that can clearly show a senior that they are no longer able to drive safely.
Here’s some great resources to help you better understand and manage senior driving safety:
American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)
Senior Safe Driving & Mobility (many resources)
US Department of Transportation