Safer Visual and Auditory Cues for Elderly Drivers is Research Goal

Blacksburg, Va. — Toyota Motor Corp. is funding research at Virginia Tech aimed at better understanding the visual and auditory needs of the growing population of elderly drivers in the United States. The project's principal investigator, Thurmon Lockhart of Blacksburg, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering (ISE) and director of the Locomotion Research Laboratory at Virginia Tech, said the study will investigate visual changes that affect the way people of different ages view control panels in automobiles, as well as changes in the way drivers hear vehicle warning signals.

As we age, Lockhart noted, our visual acuity–the ability to see details at given distances–declines. This condition, called "presbyopia," makes it increasingly difficult for people over the age of 65 to focus on nearby objects. As it progresses, presbyopia can pose real safety problems for elderly drivers who find it difficult to read dashboard control panels and instrumentation.

Lockhart will study age-related visual acuity in both daytime and nighttime driving conditions using two test groups, one composed of 28 Virginia Tech students and the other of 28 people aged 65 and older. In addition to investigating how well drivers can see dashboard panels, Lockhart will study other factors including the effects of sunlight and nighttime glare, side window and rear window glare, and the effects of various types of windshield filters and internal and external mirrors.

Working with researchers in Virginia Tech's Audio Systems Laboratory, ISE professor John Casali and research associate professor Gary Robinson, Lockhart also will conduct auditory experiments with the two test groups. As is the case with visual acuity, a significant percentage of the elderly suffer hearing loss. This condition, called "presbycusis," is characterized by a gradual decline in the ability to hear sounds clearly at certain frequencies and at low decibel levels. Drivers suffering from presbycusis can find it difficult to interpret auditory warning signals, such as the high-frequency sounds that signal a truck backing up or the approach of emergency vehicles.

In addition to simply detecting warning signals, drivers need to be able to tell the difference between a signal that indicates "warning/caution" and "urgent/critical," Lockhart said. The Virginia Tech researchers will examine the relationship between the auditory qualities of warning signals and drivers' ability to interpret the sounds, as well as the variations in signal perceptions between young and elderly drivers. Toyota and other automotive companies are interested in developing on-board warning signals that will enhance safety for drivers of all ages, Lockhart said.

Source: (this is a press release).

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