Older drivers wanted for FAU research

Want to help Florida Atlantic University devise the first older driver early warning sensors? To start their work, the research team needs 750 older drivers to volunteer.

The team just received a five-year, $5.3 million grant from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health. The project is called “In-vehicle Sensors to Detect Cognitive Change in Older Drivers.”

Here’s a Q&A with Dr. Ruth Tappen, principal investigator and an expert gerontologist with extensive experience in dementia research. Tappen is a professor and the Christine E. Lynn Eminent Scholar in FAU’s College of Nursing.

Q: Here’s how the project is described. Can you elaborate? “Researchers will test and evaluate a readily and rapidly available, unobtrusive in-vehicle sensing system. It could provide future widespread, low-cost early warnings of cognitive change for a large number of older drivers.”

A: We’re hoping this study will give us an early warning system and detect changes early. About 33% of older adults with dementia are thought to be active drivers. About 50% are estimated to continue driving for up to three years post diagnosis. Drivers with dementia often have these difficulties: Checking and changing lanes; merging; making left turns, signaling to park or following routes.

Q: This is a big issue in Florida. Do you think driving is age-related, and will this address that?

A: Not by age, by capability. You can be 90 and a good driver. The majority of older people are responsible. They limit their driving. People in the very earliest stages of cognitive change are still able to drive safely. We’re diagnosing Alzheimer’s and memory problems a lot earlier. They are not a danger on the road.

Q: When are they a danger on the road?

A: Some people with mild cognitive impairment can still drive safely. The majority of them. Then gradually, no. By the middle and late stages, there’s a much greater impairment. They should not be on the road.

Q: What does the team need to conduct this research?

A: We need 750 drivers. In February we will start bringing in people.

Q: What’s the criteria?

A: People 65 and older with a driver’s license and insurance and car. Here’s the email: drivingproject@health.fau.edu  We ask them to come back every three months so we can download data from the sensors. We want to follow people. We don’t have data in this kind of detail.

Q: How do you envision this installed in a vehicle?

A: We’re putting together the sensors now. We will put together the first systems. Then put them in the car for the people who are building them as a pretest. We will be asking people if anything about the system is distracting and annoying.

The  team is composed of researchers from FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing in collaboration with the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.

By Marci Shatzman

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