Older drivers should take extra special test if they want to stay on the road

All my life, I’ve never been that good ­backing a car into a tight space and now I’m ­getting older I’m aware that whatever spatial skills I had are on the wane.

Now, research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) shows older drivers who have worse spatial skills have difficulty making a turn across oncoming traffic – a significant risk factor for fatal traffic accidents.

So what are spatial orientation skills? They’re the combination of skills that enable us to mentally determine our position, and the position of our vehicle and other vehicles, relative to what’s going on around us.

Lead author Sol Morrissey, UEA researcher, says driving safety gets worse in older people because of the ageing process, but, as yet, we know little of how changes in the brain affect your driving.

It turns out older people with poor spatial orientation ability drive ­infrequently, and have greater difficulty driving, particularly when making turns across oncoming traffic.

For the study, 804 older adults were recruited between February 2021 and August 2021 with an average age of 71. Participants needed to be 65 or older, hold a current driving licence, and be a regular motorist, driving at least once per week.

Those recruited then completed online questionnaires related to their demographic, health status, driving history, driving habits, road traffic ­incident history, spatial memory and navigation ability.

Participants completed an ­assessment of cognitive performance across a variety of areas.

The results showed that driving difficulty is linked to worse spatial orientation within healthy ageing and also slower processing speed.

Spatial orientation has clear ­relevance to driving behaviour, as ­deficits will lead to poor judgment of vehicle position in relation to other traffic. Older adults are overrepresented in intersection crashes that involve multiple vehicles, and ­therefore poor orientation is a key risk factor for road collisions.

Professor Michael Hornberger, of Norwich Medical School, said: “The research showed that deficits in spatial orientation are a robust indicator of driving performance in older age.

“This should be considered in future ageing driving assessments, as it has clear relevance for road safety within the ageing people.”

Cognitive changes, which are known to be critical for driving performance, have hardly been explored in healthy ageing populations.

Professor Hornberger added: “Online assessment batteries (a group of tests) are particularly relevant for screening for changes in driving fitness over time, because they can be employed more conveniently, are more resource-efficient, and offer more precise measurements than in-person psychometric tests.”

It looks very much as if there’s a need for driving skills to be assessed alongside cognitive tests.