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Helping Older Drivers Make the Most of Their GPS

Navigation devices can be helpful or distracting, and it's up to you to maximize their potential benefits

By Mark E. Harris | May 8, 2012

Navigation technology has certainly made life easier for the lone motorist. Not having to wrestle with a map while driving or peer down side streets in a desperate hunt for a gas station has undoubtedly led to safer roads. But distracted driving accidents still claim the lives of more than 3,000 Americans each year, and some scientists put the blame on our increasingly cluttered digital dashboards and devices that prompt distraction. 

Recent neuroscientific discoveries suggest that the problem is compounded by the aging process, which affects the way we perceive and process critical information like route guidance. The findings underscore that many in-car satellite navigation systems (GPS) have unwittingly been designed to suit younger drivers. The good news is that a few simple changes can make them both less confusing and safer for older and aging motorists.
 
Make the Most of Your GPS
  • Shut off the video. Manufacturers gush about the size, brilliance and clarity of their GPS displays, but new research from Carnegie Mellon University indicates that older drivers might be better served turning them off altogether. Researchers tested younger and older drivers on a driving simulator using a variety of navigation systems and measured their performance using advanced eye-tracking cameras. Younger drivers found turn-by-turn audio instructions distracting, while those over 65 said video displays were more annoying. Sure enough, older drivers spent more time looking at the road ahead and made fewer driving errors when they had only voice instructions to go on. According to a wealth of studies, this is because as we age, our ability to create a mental map of the world around us diminishes. Deciphering a complicated video display takes us longer and reduces the attention we pay to the real world compared with following vocal instructions.
  • Keep visual simple. Thomas Seder, manager of the Human Machine Interface Lab at General Motors, recommends several options to maximize the effectiveness of your GPS and reduce the time and effort needed to interpret visual data. It's best to purchase a unit that offers a simple street display and directional arrow with words that render in a mixture of upper- and lower-case letters in an eay-to-read font. It will also help to adjust the display’s color scheme. Choose Settings or Set-up from the main screen, then Color Mode. A high-contrast, monochrome scheme will be more effective than garish primary colors.
  • Pump up the volume. Not all GPS voices are created equal. Some sound like strangled robots, others could be smooth-talking politicians, and a few even let you download celebrity voices. Carryl Baldwin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at George Mason University, recommends buying a unit that offers a natural-sounding human voice, using that, and turning the volume way up. (It doesn't matter whether it's a male or female voice: It's what's most comfortable to the driver.) In one of Baldwin’s simulated driving tests, 17 people were given verbal instructions at different volume levels. All reacted significantly faster to the loudest instructions, and the benefit was even more noticeable for older drivers. This is due to a quirk in our short-term “echoic memory,” which stores louder sounds for longer than quieter one, thus giving you more "reaction time" to process essential information.
  • Keep your eyes on the road. Many studies show that our ability to multitask and our reaction time slip as we get older, perhaps by as much as a quarter of a second (adding 20 feet to braking distances when traveling 55 mph). This doesn’t mean that we necessarily become worse drivers, but it does suggest that we need to avoid risky behaviors, including fiddling with a GPS, while on the road. Never attempt to select a new destination while in motion. When purchasing a new GPS, look for advanced features that can further improve safety. A “safe mode” will disable virtually all operations when the car is in motion. Some let you extend the warning time before points of interest, giving you more time to react; others can warn you when you are approaching speed cameras or exceeding the posted speed limit. Where possible, use these as audio alerts rather than distracting visual cues.
The Future of Navigation

Many pricier new models now speak street names out loud—a step, so to speak, in the right direction. But don’t be fooled by claims of "landmark navigation" on some of the latest devices: These usually refer to 3D visual representations of tourist sights, not everyday landmarks like shops and gas stations.

As the amount of information drivers have to deal with increases, researchers are now working on ways to make it available at our fingertips, literally. The Carnegie Mellon team has built a “haptic” steering wheel that communicates GPS directions by vibration: clockwise for a right turn, counterclockwise for left. In lab tests, drivers both young and old performed (slightly) better with the wobbling wheel than with traditional GPS systems alone. The system could find its way into new cars within five years.

For all technology’s bells and whistles, though, the most rewarding navigation system to upgrade could be your own brain. AAA’s DriveSharp offers a computerized test of your road skills and an online brain fitness program called DriveSharp that is claimed to cut your crash risk in half.

Mark E. Harris is a British science, technology and motoring journalist based in Seattle. He also writes for The Economist, The Sunday Times and Wired UK.

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