Distracted driving in elderly and middle-aged drivers

Kelsey R. Thompson, Amy M. Johnson, Jamie L. Emerson, Jeffrey D. Dawson, Erwin R. Boer, Matthew Rizzo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Automobile driving is a safety-critical real-world example of multitasking. A variety of roadway and in-vehicle distracter tasks create information processing loads that compete for the neural resources needed to drive safely. Drivers with mind and brain aging may be particularly susceptible to distraction due to waning cognitive resources and control over attention. This study examined distracted driving performance in an instrumented vehicle (IV) in 86 elderly (mean = 72.5 years, SD = 5.0 years) and 51 middle-aged drivers (mean = 53.7 years, SD = 9.3 year) under a concurrent auditory-verbal processing load created by the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task (PASAT). Compared to baseline (no-task) driving performance, distraction was associated with reduced steering control in both groups, with middle-aged drivers showing a greater increase in steering variability. The elderly drove slower and showed decreased speed variability during distraction compared to middle-aged drivers. They also tended to "freeze up", spending significantly more time holding the gas pedal steady, another tactic that may mitigate time pressured integration and control of information, thereby freeing mental resources to maintain situation awareness. While 39% of elderly and 43% of middle-aged drivers committed significantly more driving safety errors during distraction, 28% and 18%, respectively, actually improved, compatible with allocation of attention resources to safety critical tasks under a cognitive load.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)711-717
Number of pages7
JournalAccident Analysis and Prevention
StatePublished - Mar 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognitive decline
  • Distracted driving
  • Instrumented vehicle
  • Multitasking
  • Older driver safety
  • Serialization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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