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Driving simulator may keep seniors on the road

Driving simulator may keep seniors on the road


Along the difficult journey of living with dementia, losing the ability to drive is perhaps the most traumatic bump.

Under the current licensing system, surrendering one’s independence is a black-and-white affair: Either a driver is allowed to get behind the wheel, or not.

But what if there were some kind of graduated licensing system like that used for beginner drivers, but at the other end of the spectrum — one that allowed more seniors to stay on the road longer and more safely?

That is the thinking behind a cutting-edge driving simulator destined for Toronto Rehabilitation Institute’s iDAPT facility, where researchers are rethinking motor-vehicle licensing for seniors.

“There are a lot of people driving with dementia, some of whom shouldn’t be, but then there are a lot of people not driving with dementia who could be,” said Geoff Fernie, director of Toronto Rehab. “If you could have a customized licence, people would be limited to driving in certain (conditions) — in daylight, and on certain streets. We want to have the evidence that we can test for that.” An artist’s rendering of the driving simulator that is being built for Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. Dubbed DriverLab, it includes an Audi A3, will use water to simulate rain and real headlights.

It is a pioneering idea that could significantly affect the quality of life of a large and growing segment of the population. By 2028, there are expected to be nearly 100,000 drivers with dementia in Ontario, more than double the current number, according to a Queen’s University study.

Despite recent changes in Ontario meant to be fairer to seniors by removing unnecessary burdens to licence renewal, the licensing system remains “very crude,” according to David Harvey, public policy officer for the Alzheimer Society of Ontario.
“I think the idea of a graduated driver’s licence has a lot of merit,” he said.

Dubbed DriverLab, Toronto Rehab’s $4-million driving simulator may be the most advanced in the world. It is being built from an Audi A3, and will use water to simulate rain, as well as genuine headlights to mimic the distracting effect of oncoming traffic at night.

A team in Amsterdam is in the midst of stripping away unnecessary parts from the A3 (acquired for a nominal fee from Audi), and tying the car’s systems to the computers in Toronto. Meanwhile, in Florida, work is underway on the dome that will enclose the car.
The various pieces are slated to be assembled this winter in the warehouselike space in Rehab’s state-of-the-art iDAPT facility on University Ave., which is home to a collection of fibreglass pods that provide the real-life backdrops for solving common mobility and aging issues. (For instance, falls on ice are studied in WinterLab, while falls down stairs are examined in StairLab.)

To iron out some of the design features of DriverLab, the team has added the interior of a car to the StreetLab pod, where researchers are trying to prevent a phenomenon known as “simulator sickness,” which can occur when what you see doesn’t match what you hear or feel.

Whereas traditional road tests are typically conducted in good conditions during the day, Fernie said DriverLab will allow for testing driver’s skills in a variety of conditions.

“You can actually crash if you’re going to crash, without killing people,” he said.

The goal is to one day offer simulators as an alternative to on-road driving tests, which will mean designing simulators that are affordable and can be reproduced at driver testing sites across the province.

A spokesman for Ontario Ministry of Transportation said it has no plans to institute “reverse” or “conditional” licensing for seniors. However, the province will follow the research closely, he said. “We look forward to seeing the results of the proposed study, once completed.”

Reprinted with permission – Torstar Syndication Services

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