Driving a car is increasingly vital to many people even as they grow older since driving helps them stay independent, socially connected, and mobile. Even with this, older people face a lot of challenges with driving. Some of the issues like eyesight, motor skills, reflexes, and cognitive ability increase the risk of an accident or collision and the increased frailty of older drivers mean they are more likely to be seriously injured or killed as a result.

An expert in Intelligent Transport Systems at Newcastle University, UK, Dr. Shuo Li, explained that in the UK, older drivers are tending to drive more often and over longer distances but as the task of driving becomes more demanding, they adjust their driving to avoid stressful situations.

Li further noted that not driving in bad weather when visibility is poor, avoiding cities or routes and even planning journeys that prevent right-hand turns are some of the strategies the older people take to minimize risk. However, this measure can be quite limiting for people.

According to Li, self-driving cars are seen as a potential game-changer for this age group. Fully automated, they are unlikely to require a license and could negotiate lousy weather and unfamiliar cities under all situations without input from the driver.

Professor Phil Blythe from Newcastle University was the leader of the study, and with the Newcastle University team, they have been searching the time it takes for older drivers to take-back control of an automated car in different scenarios and also the quality of their driving in these different situations.

The researchers used the state-of-the-art DriveLAB simulator of the University, and they divided 76 participants into two different age groups (20 - 35 and 60 - 81). The volunteers experienced automated driving for a short period, and the researchers asked them to 'take-back' control of a highly automatic car and avoided a stationary vehicle on a motorway, a city road, and in adverse weather conditions when visibility was poor.

Li explained that in precise conditions, the quality of driving was good, but the reaction time of the older volunteers was significantly slower than the younger drivers. Even taking into account the fact that the older volunteers in this study were an indeed active group, it took about 8.3 seconds for them to negotiate the obstacle compared to around 7 seconds for the younger age group. At 60mph, that means the older drivers would have needed an extra 35m warning distance, that's equivalent to the length of 10 cars.