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Do distractions affect older drivers more?

There's no doubt that distracted driving is a real problem in all segments of the population, but are there some demographic groups that have more problems than others.

Driving involves multitasking. Drivers have to process information that they see on the road and instantly integrate it into their driving performance. When distractions on the highway are coupled with distractions inside of the vehicle, older drivers' neural resources can become overloaded and their driving compromised.

This is particularly a problem with drivers who have age-related problems with cognition and lack of attention and focus. Distraction caused a reduced ability to control steering in groups of both middle-aged and elderly drivers in a controlled study done by researchers.

Elderly drivers drove more slowly and had decreased speed variability when distracted compared to their middle-aged counterparts. Also, they had a tendency to "freeze up" and also spent more time steadily holding the gas pedal down.

Research has shown that 39 percent of elderly drivers committed significant safety errors behind the wheel compared to 43 percent of those middle-aged drivers in the study when both groups were equally distracted.

Multitasking while driving involves many complex processes, including:

-- navigating

-- controlling speed and steering

-- making swift judgments on when it's safe to merge and pass

-- tracking locations of other vehicles

-- obeying traffic signs

This competition for finite neural resources can mean that engaging in one task will affect a driver's performance in others. Performance might at first improve with heightened arousal but then deteriorate with the heavy cognitive load. This can heighten the risk of drivers getting into single-vehicle accidents like rear-end collisions or running off the road.

If you were in a wreck with a distracted driver, no matter what their age, you can pursue a claim for damages through the Virginia civil courts.

Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information,, "Distracted Driving in Elderly and Middle-Aged Drivers," Kelsey R. Thompson, et al, accessed Sep. 08, 2016

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