Study finds older drivers over-confident about driving ability

Dr Karen Sullivan

Professor Sullivan said the study participants, whose average age was 71 and who had an average of 51 years’ driving experience, were asked to self-rate their driving ability and then undertake a computer-simulated task in which they had to recognise and react to potential road hazards.

Participants also rated their driving confidence and reported on the extent to which they avoided potentially dangerous driving conditions such as driving at night or in the rain.

“Our analysis showed little relationship between the participants’ performance on the hazard perception test and the ratings they gave themselves,” Professor Sullivan said.

“We also found that decreases in the ability to perceive potential hazards were not matched by a reduction in confidence in the ability to handle difficult driving conditions nor by avoiding these many potentially dangerous driving situations.

“This suggests that self-assessment is not an accurate way for older drivers to assess their driving.

“However, the study found the range of situations participants avoided included some that had not been assessed in older driver self-restriction studies, such as avoiding driving at school pick-up and drop-off times.”

Professor Sullivan said the findings relating to drivers’ higher confidence relative to their actual driving hazard perception ability were not limited to older people; other studies had demonstrated that younger drivers also showed this bias.

She said the drivers in the study had generally positive perceptions of their driving skills and rated themselves as considerably more skilled than the average Brisbane driver despite the study’s finding that time taken to respond to potential hazards increased with age.

“The response time data from this study is consistent with previous findings by other research groups. In this study, participants aged 65-74 had a mean response time of 3.5 seconds and those aged 75-84 had a significantly higher mean response time. There were no gender differences in hazard perception,” she said.

Professor Sullivan said the hazard perception task in this study was used as a proxy measure of crash risk, which had been found to be a relatively reliable measure in other research.

“Participants in this study watched video footage of real driving situations filmed on Brisbane streets and screened on computer,” she said.

“We asked study participants whether they felt the computer-simulated driving task mirrored real-life driving and 70 percent said the test did this ‘well’ or ‘very well’.

“The study raises questions about our ability to accurately self-assess our driving skills, and even to self-regulate the risks we may perceive, for example, by avoiding driving situations we personally consider high-risk.

Professor Sullivan said the participants indicated they would be keen to have their doctor’s input into their driving decisions.

“If supported by an appropriate program, this option could be useful for older adults who wish to discuss these issues with their medical practitioners,” she said.

“Other solutions could also be explored, such as looking at ways of improving older drivers’ hazard perception because they are an important group in the road-using community, and have particular transportation needs.

“This study should stimulate further thinking about risk and behaviour in particular driving situations.”

The study was funded by the NRMA – ACT Road Safety Trust and the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads.

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, QUT media officer, 07 3138 1841 or [email protected]

** High res photo of Dr Sullivan available for media use.