Can a Cognitive Test Predict Your Driving Skills?

December 4, 2017

As everyone who’s taken a driving test knows, navigating the road is a complex task that places demands on a range of mental skills. A team of 9 neuroscientists at the Faubert Laboratory, University of Montreal, used sophisticated driving simulations and NeuroTracker assessments to see if cognitive abilities could reveal which people are most at risk behind the wheel.

In a landmark study spanning several years, 115 young (18-21 years old), middle aged (25-55 years old), and elderly drivers (70-86 years old) had their driving skills put to the test in the VS500M – a high-tech driving simulator built with real car parts and force feedback steering. Immersed in a display with a 180° field of view, the participants spent two hours driving in city and rural environments, as well as on the highway.  Each scenario included dangerous events that forced emergency responses to avoid accidents with other vehicles or pedestrians.   Drivers had to steer or brake suddenly in order to safely react to life-threatening encounters.

Breaking new ground

The simulator captured a wealth of data on driving performance, including 18 specific measures of driving skill.  These were rigorously analyzed to capture not just errors, but also nuanced driving behaviors, such as the anticipation distance at which a driver starts to respond to an oncoming threat.  With the goal of breaking new ground in driving simulator research, this new level of analysis allowed the researchers to reveal poorly adapted skills that could contribute to potentially high-risk driving.

It is known that when mental resource demands exceed what’s available, driving ability can be critically impaired.  So the research team also compared driving behavior across low, medium and high cognitive load scenarios. They then evaluated this load against age and driving experience to identify which combination of factors put people most at risk of driving accidents.

What was found

Previous research has shown that young drivers tend to be less safe on the road due to a lack of experience and greater risk-taking tendencies, while older drivers tend to be less aware with slower reactions, and compensate for this by driving more slowly.

In the simulator drivers were not told what speed to drive so they would behave more naturally.  As expected, older people mostly drove more slowly. Iinterestingly though, experienced drivers of all ages also tended to drive more slowly than inexperienced drivers.  Younger participants were more likely to be involved in near crashes than older drivers, and after perceiving potential threats, older drivers took defensive action earlier than younger drivers. However, older drivers were also less likely to identify threats in sufficient time to react appropriately. The researchers suggested this behavior may be linked to perceptual-cognitive changes associated with ageing.

In terms of strategies for responding to dangerous events, younger drivers tended to favor steering movements to avoid crashes, while older drivers were more likely to brake abruptly.

How it related to cognitive function

NeuroTracker measures an individual’s ability to capture and integrate relevant information in a highly complex visual environment. While previous driving studies have compared isolated measures of cognitive function such as working memory, NeuroTracker was used as an integrative and dynamic test in order to be more relevant to the broader cognitive abilities involved in driving.

Statistical analysis of NeuroTracker results demonstrated that they effectively predicted elevated risks of crashes.  More specifically, NeuroTracker data predicted steering rate and the distance at which large steering reactions were made, suggesting that mental speed of processing may be a factor in making earlier evasive responses.

Lower NeuroTracker scores also correlated significantly with slower average driving speed for older adults, providing evidence towards the theory that driving more slowly is related to the cognitive effects of aging, rather than simply being more careful.

Very similar findings were discovered in a separate 2017 study, again using NeuroTracker and driving simulator assessments, but focused on older drivers only.

Practical applications

While putting individuals through driving simulators to assess their skills on the road is good in theory, it’s not practical due to high costs.  High-level cognitive tests like NeuroTracker however, are cheap, take just minutes to complete, and can performed at home.  This study shows that such perceptual-cognitive measures can reveal factors underlying driving risks, and even help to identify people using compensatory driving behavior but still at increased risk.

Assess then improve?

Although NeuroTracker is a scientific cognitive assessment, first and foremost its used by a many people around the world to enhance human performance, including elite athletes, military special-forces, and Formula 1 drivers.  With evidence for rapid enhancement of a wide range of high-level cognitive functions known to be relevant to driving abilities, as well as far transfer to performance abilities, it could provide a means to not only identify those at risk on the road, but also to improve their abilities to drive safely.  Professor Faubert, a researcher on the study, commented, “There’s clearly a high relevance of this type of cognitive tool for assessing driving skills, but I see even greater potential to improve those skills for people of all ages.”

Study references

Driving simulator scenarios and measures to faithfully evaluate risky driving behavior:  A comparative study of different driver age groups

Three-Dimensional Multiple Object Tracking Speed Thresholds are Associated with Measures of Simulated Driving Performance in Older Drivers

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