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The Role of Transportation Researchers in Rehabilitation Hospitals to Keep Patients Mobile

Johnell Brooks, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Clemson University

September 15, 2011

The focus on transportation safety is increasingly turning to seniors, and for good reason: currently 15 percent of all U.S. drivers are seniors. With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, a full 25 percent of drivers will be over the age of 65 by 2025.

In the opening event of the ITS Institute’s Advanced Transportation Technologies Seminar Series on September 15, Johnell Brooks of Clemson University explained that this rapidly growing senior population faces some unique transportation safety challenges. For instance, although seniors drive the fewest number of miles per year, they have the highest rate of fatalities per mile driven—partly because they can’t bounce back from minor injuries like younger people can. Complicating the situation is the fact that elderly people are driving more than they did in previous generations, often because their children aren’t able to provide them with transportation.

Brooks, a psychology and automotive engineering researcher, outlined how Clemson University’s SmartWHEELS program is helping seniors address these challenges and maintain the ability to drive safely. The program is a joint effort between the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research and the University’s Institute of Engaged Aging.

Clemson researchers have pinpointed a number of contributing factors for fatal crashes among today’s seniors. These include failure to yield, driving too fast for conditions, disregarding signs and signals, and driving under the influence. “When we’re talking about driving under the influence, what we often see is medication problems or medication interactions,” Brooks said. “We also see seniors drinking and then driving home in golf carts, but when they’re driving on the road and crash with a full-size vehicle, the golf cart comes out the loser.”

To help seniors who are recovering from surgery, vehicle crashes, or other medical setbacks return to the road safely, SmartWHEELS researchers have teamed up with occupational therapists to develop assessment tests and driver training. This effort includes creating a fully equipped instrumented vehicle that thoroughly documents the on-road test drives patients take with their therapists. One reason instrumented vehicles are important is that they can provide the objective feedback necessary to obtain approval for insurance reimbursement.

In addition, the instrumented vehicle is a useful training tool. “We have eight cameras documenting what is going on during a drive, so if you have a patient with cognitive problems who didn’t recognize a dangerous situation, therapists can go back and review the video with them to help them understand what went wrong,” says Brooks.

Another SmartWHEELS project was the creation of a portable driving simulator engineered with elderly patients in mind. It includes features such as improved speakers and input buttons, a specially designed seat, moveable monitors, more legroom, additional screens, and a wider base.

Other initiatives include developing simple assessments to easily evaluate possible driving and independent living impairments, and working with physicians and clinicians to educate them about the uses and limitations of driving simulators for rehabilitation. In the future, the research team plans to continue to innovate new ways to keep elderly drivers mobile and keep seniors— and as a result, all drivers—safe on our nation’s roadways.