by Nancy Ceresia
Few tasks performed daily are more complex or dangerous than driving, yet we often take this privilege for granted. We view driving as essential to our quality of life. But what happens when other factors influence one’s ability to drive? When do issues related to health and age affect what many view as the key to independence?
Professor Sylvain Gagnon, along with graduate students in the Laboratory for Cognitive Aging, studies the complex factors influencing driving ability as people age. He points out age itself isn’t cause for the deterioration of driving ability. “Aging is a multi-factorial process, and when you look at driving… it is a complex task involving many factors, abilities and influences beyond the realm of cognition or physical ability.”
Graduate students Arne Stinchcombe and Mélanie Joanisse are identifying what these factors are and how profoundly they affect driving performance as people age.
Using a driving simulator donated by Transport Canada as part of the lab’s involvement in CANDRIVE—an interdisciplinary research initiative to improve safety of older drivers, these graduate students are able to assess the driving abilities of real people. Arne Stinchcombe is studying the underlying cognitive processes relating to attention that are involved in driving. “My research is interested in breaking down the environment,” he explains, “and one of the ways we’ve found to do that is to break it down in terms of visual complexity, such as road signs and other traffic, and handling complexity, like negotiating around curves.”
“An additional goal is to bring this research into an assessment environment to evaluate the differences between safe and unsafe drivers, and older and younger drivers,” adds Stinchcombe. These aspects are of particular importance for physicians, who, in most Canadian provinces, are legally mandated to report unsafe drivers.
“We still don’t know how to assess older drivers properly. A lot of people feel the road test is unfair to the older driver and is not a good barometer for driving ability,” says professor Gagnon
Fair evaluation can be impacted by more than environmental and health factors, as Mélanie Joanisse is discovering through her research into the social influences that can affect driving performance. Some of the most influential factors may, in fact, lie behind closed doors in the form of familial pressure on older drivers to limit their time behind the wheel. “We want to know if someone is using their car less often because of their skills or medical conditions, or because of messages they are receiving from their family and society at large.
Thus far, her research has shown how wide-spread the negative perception of older drivers is in our society. Even older drivers view themselves more favourably compared with even older drivers—a 75-year-old compared with an 85-year-old, for example.
The prevalence of such a perception is one of the most surprising things Joanisse has learned. Regardless of our age, “there never seems to be a point where we put ourselves among the group of older drivers,” she says.
As for their overall experience with the research they are doing, Stinchcombe and Joanisse agree that the freedom they have as graduate students has made for a very fulfilling experience.“Being able to travel and meet other people who are doing similar research beyond the local community is great. It’s not just about being in school. You are more open to the world out there,” says Joannisse.
In addition to international exposure and access to peers doing research elsewhere, Stinchcombe and Joanisse enjoy the camaraderie and diversity of working with students conducting research in the same field. Stinchcombe also notes the relationship with their supervisor, professor Gagnon, adds to the experience.“The dynamic between a grad student and professor is more equal, more collegial. You are working on something to reach a common goal.”
And how does professor Gagnon feel about the people he spends so much time with? “I’m very lucky to be surrounded by good students. The relationship is reciprocal in the sense that we are all learning. It’s been a fantastic learning experience….When you are surrounded by people who are curious, interested, organized and who wish to make a contribution, there is no limit….It has an impact on the kind of research I do.”