Spatial Orientation and Navigation in Elderly Drivers

Principal Investigator(s):

Herbert Pick, Former Professor, Child Development


Project summary:

Most of the research on elderly drivers is understandably concerned with vehicle control. The elderly are an increasing proportion of the total population and they are already overly represented in the number of accidents occurring per mile driven. However, because of this emphasis on control, research with the elderly on the main function of driving, i.e., getting from one place to another, has received little attention. A major facet of this topic involves, at a practical level, spatial orientation and navigation. Besides being of interest in its own right, difficulties maintaining orientation and finding one's way may interact with vehicle control as a driver becomes distracted or even alarmed by losing their way, and pays less attention to vehicle control or possibly makes erratic corrections en route.

This study 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 or prompting, 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 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.

Project details:

  • Project number: 1999022
  • Start date: 06/1999
  • Project status: Completed
  • Research area: Transportation Safety and Traffic Flow
  • Topics: Safety

Reports or Products: