Spatial Orientation and Navigation in Elderly Drivers


Herbert Pick

November 2010

Report no. CTS 10-13



This report details a research study that was conducted to determine whether elderly drivers have more difficulty than younger drivers in maintaining orientation when they learn routes in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Drivers learned an approximately three-mile irregular route through a novel neighborhood. After they could drive the route without errors, they were asked to indicate the direction of out-of-sight landmarks from various station points along the route. Elderly drivers (60 years and over) made almost double the size errors in their judgments than the younger drivers (25-35 years). Unexpectedly, there was also a gender difference with women especially elderly women, making larger errors than men. Although actually driving along a real route gives the experimental task considerable face validity, the situation lacks considerably in experimental control. Traffic conditions can vary, weather conditions can vary, there may be road construction, etc. The nature of the route itself cannot be experimentally manipulated. With all these factors, it is difficult to investigate how orientation affects vehicle control. Much greater control can be gained by driving in a simulator and it is much safer. The orientation study described above was replicated in a simulator with similar results. Initial crude observations indicated that when attention was on wayfinding, vehicle control was poorer. A more refined study of how vehicle control is affected by wayfinding followed this project.

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