Age Related Changes in Cognitive Response Style in the Driving Task

The degree and manner in which cellular phone conversations and other cognitive distractions affect driving performance remains an area of great interest. It is well known that cellular phone usage adversely impacts safety (Redelmeier &Tibshirani, 1997), but the extent to which the effect changes with age, conversation type, etc. has not been well-characterized. The potential for decline in driving safety with advancing age is of particular concern, as it is known that older adults do not perform as well as younger adults when attention is divided between complex cognitive tasks (McDowd & Craik, 1998). However, the age at which declines in cognitive ability begin to impact performance is not well established and is known to vary considerably by individual. The next generation of older adults is expected to drive more frequently than previous cohorts (Coughlin, 2005; Bush, 2005). Since today’s aging driver has more exposure to cellular technologies, the author believes that with age they are more likely than their predecessors to continue using cellular phones while driving. However, it remains unclear how cellular phone usage impacts driving safety with age. In this project, heart rate and driving performance were assessed while late middle age (51-66) and younger adults (19-23) engaged in a naturalistic hands free phone task that was designed to place objectively equivalent cognitive demands on all participants. While there are significant reasons to discourage all individuals from engaging in phone conversations and other distracting tasks while driving, results of this project suggest that late middle age adults appeared as capable as young adults of managing the additional workload of a low to moderately demanding cognitive task. The tendency of individuals to adopt self-regulatory behaviors, such as a lower overall driving speed, as a function of age / experience may account for the equivalence in overt performance. Nothing in the findings of this project should detract from the fact that engaging in a secondary task such as a cellular phone conversation does divide attention; drivers of all ages need to be mindful of the conditions under which it is appropriate to utilize a phone while driving and the importance of limiting the level of demand engendered by the conversation.

  • Record URL:
  • Supplemental Notes:
    • This document is disseminated under the sponsorship of the Department of Transportation, University Transportation Centers Program.
  • Corporate Authors:

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    Department of Civil Engineering, 77 Massachusetts Avenue
    Cambridge, MA  United States  02139

    New England University Transportation Center

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    77 Massachusetts Avenue, Room 40-279
    Cambridge, MA  United States  01239
  • Authors:
    • Reimer, Bryan
  • Publication Date: 2009-11-16


  • English

Media Info

  • Media Type: Web
  • Edition: Final Report
  • Features: References;
  • Pagination: 3p

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01152808
  • Record Type: Publication
  • Report/Paper Numbers: MITR19-4
  • Files: UTC, NTL, TRIS
  • Created Date: Mar 15 2010 2:39PM