What is it about?

Fitness to drive is easy to obtain: Anybody who has a driving license is fit to drive, just by definition. But does that imply driving competence? Driving competence is often assessed by obvious, observational categories, like lane keeping and speed control, yet this is a dangerous simplification. Driving is a complex task and competence for its responsible execution requires a complex mix of basic sensory and psychological functions. This study aims to reveal that pattern of capabilities needed for driving, and tries to figure out models for predicting fitness to drive safely.

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Why is it important?

Fitness to drive – possessing a driving license – has a profound effect on lives as individual mobility is crucial for social integration, health, and well-being. Elderly people in particular need individual mobility as a significant factor in quality of life. Driving cessation is often associated with a loss of independence, with isolation, and even death as an indirect result as it prompts older people to use alternative modes of transportation (i.e. becoming pedestrians) that are riskier than using the private car. On the other hand, however, many a driver continues to drive even when not fit to do so. Leaving the decision to continue driving to the driver thus appears insufficient for ensuring on-road safety. To identify parameters that allow prediction of safe driving we conducted, in a first step, an on-road driving test in a natural traffic environment that represented a typical setting for driver licensing tests in Germany. Serving as a validity criterion, the test was to identify “good” and “bad” drivers, i.e. those “fit to drive” vs. those “possibly unfit to drive”. In a second step, participants – 84 older drivers aged 60 years and above – conducted a variety of visual and psychometric tests from a test battery for assessing fitness to drive, providing performance measures of basic abilities which – based on the literature - should be highly relevant for driving (e.g. peripheral vision, visual acuity, attention). Is it possible to reveal drivers classified as “possibly unfit to drive” by assessment of basic visual and psychological abilities? In short: it is not. Neither psychometric assessment nor visual performance parameters had a meaningful impact on driving performance in our sample. Beyond those measures, it was mainly cognitive assessment that provided the key predictors for safe and unsafe driving in older adults; standard visual assessment required by law, in contrast, had no meaningful effect on driving performance. This highlights an astounding gap between mandatory regulations of state authorities and research results.


“There is widespread agreement that, in general, aging results in some level of decline in sensory, perceptual, cognitive, psychomotor, and physical performance, and therefore probably also in driving skills. However, age itself is not a useful index for determining, e.g., intervals for license renewal. Based on crash statistics, age-based assessment turns out to be unjustified, stigmatizing the group of older drivers as potentially risky drivers. The only way to identify potentially risky drivers is screening for fitness-to-drive that needs to reflect the complexity of the task of driving. Hence we recommend a brief, and inexpensive, routine first-stage screening in connection with an age-independent, in-person renewal of driving licenses.” Wolfgang Grundler Volkswagen AG Hans Strasburger Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Hans Strasburger
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

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This page is a summary of: Visual attention outperforms visual-perceptual parameters required by law as an indicator of on-road driving performance, PLoS ONE, August 2020, PLOS,
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0236147.
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