Trucks at Work

Exercise and older drivers

Here’s a finding that seems fairly obvious, yet play a critical role in terms of improving highway safety: Exercise can boost the skill set of older drivers.

Specifically, research by the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence and MIT’s AgeLab finds that exercise can enhance certain aspects of flexibility and range of motion for what they term “mature” drivers – improving their ability to view vehicle “blind spots,” among other traits.

And if you think that type of finding is pretty rudimentary, you’d be right – except such determinations gleaned from MIT’s Exercise for Mature Drivers research could be the deciding factor in whether a particular vehicular maneuver results in a crash or not.

“We know that exercise is valuable as we age, but we were interested in looking at connections to specific driving issues associated with aging,” noted Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab. “Our research contributes to a better understanding of the impact that exercise may have on driving skills as you age, and it provides simple exercises that can help contribute to a more positive driving experience.”

Hartford/MIT researchers tracked experienced drivers aged 60 to 74 as part of a randomized controlled study and armed them with physical fitness programs to practice for 15 to 20 minutes daily for eight to 10 weeks using Microsoft Kinect for Xbox systems.

The exercise program focused on four areas – flexibility, range of motion, strength and coordination. Participants’ driving skills were assessed before and after the exercise program with a combination of in-lab tests, a driving simulator and the instrumented MIT AgeLab Aware Car. The researchers found:

  • Older drivers reported greater ease in turning their heads to see blind spots when changing lanes or to back up;
  • Were able to rotate their bodies further to scan the driving environment while making right hand turns; and
  • Could get into their cars more rapidly, thus demonstrating increased overall flexibility

A companion survey of drivers 50 years of age and older within this study found that half have not considered how exercise might be beneficial to their ability to drive – going so far as to identify the physical aspects they find the most challenging when it comes to driving:

  • Turning their head and body to look behind when backing up (41%)
  • Getting in and out of the car (22%)
  • Turning their head to see blind spots when changing lanes (19%)

This is important stuff as more and more “older drivers” operate not just cars but commercial vehicles as well – a topic I’ve addressed in this space before.

Although older drivers are involved in a small proportion of total motor vehicle collisions (MVCs), they have the highest number of MVCs per mile traveled according to AAA. With the number of drivers 65 years of age and older expected to double by 2030 (according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics 2008), reducing the risk of MVCs among these drivers will increase in importance – especially if something as simple as exercise can help alleviate such risk.

Indeed, trucking needs to pay attention to this as the truck driver population is aging faster than most. According to the Transportation Research Board, by 2004, the percentage of truck drivers over 65 had risen to 3.7%. If this trend continues, more than 5.5% of the truck driver population would be over the age of 65 years old by next year, according to TRB’s analysis – a “graying rate” that’s almost twice as fast as the overall workforce.

Something to keep in mind as the industry keeps rolling forward.

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