05/07/2013 10:43 EDT | Updated 07/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Driving study could keep seniors on the road longer

Driving can be a challenge for people later in life. But new research suggests that keeping senior citizens confident and on the road could be safer for everyone.

McMaster University is part of a six-city, three-university study looking at seniors and road safety. Preliminary findings suggest deteriorating driving habits could be cyclical — the less confident seniors are on the road, the less they drive, and the more their skills deteriorate from lack of use.

The key to keeping seniors driving longer may be boosting their confidence through some encouragement and retraining, says Brenda Vrkljan, a McMaster professor and member of the Candrive Research Network.

“Because they lose self-esteem, they drive less, and driving less could impact their self esteem,” said Vrkljan, who is studying 127 seniors over the age of 70 in Hamilton. “Perhaps intervention would see both areas improve.”

More than 900 seniors across Ontario are participating in the study. Some are as old as 90.

Researchers use GPS and three cameras mounted inside the car to gauge multiple elements, including speed, braking patterns and driver reaction.

Results of the study will help health practitioners assess drivers' abilities as they age. It could also inform public policy around older drivers.

The senior citizen volunteers were eager to sign up, Vrkljan said.

“We were overwhelmed by the response of people wanting to join the study,” she said. “Driving is important to them. They want to make sure if somebody's losing their licence or told it's no longer safe for them to drive that it's based on evidence.”

Howard Arsenault, a 74-year-old Hamilton research participant, has been driving since he was 16. Driving is a key part of his life and his ability to travel to see his family.

“It's the freedom of being able to drive,” he said.

The project has received funding from Auto21 and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. The team is looking for more funding, Vrkljian said.

The end result will be “safer roads for everybody,” she said. “What works for a senior is going to help everybody.

“Everybody on the road right now will eventually one day not be driving.”