Despite considerable efforts by road safety authorities, young drivers on Australian and New Zealand roads continue to be over-represented in crash statistics - too often with tragic consequences. So what’s causing this misrepresentation and what additional steps can be taken to reduce crash risk in young drivers? The answer may lie in what we’ve learnt from aviation training initiatives.

Three of the factors that contribute to young drivers being at higher crash risk are:

  1. Their inexperience with the driving task,
  2. Their cognitive immaturity, and
  3. Their disassociation between themselves and the demographic that they belong to - the “it happens to other people but not to me” syndrome.

Most learner drivers are teenagers. Generally speaking their brains have not reached full maturity. Typically one of the last regions of the brain to reach maturity is the prefrontal cortex - the region of the brain responsible for decision-making and the understanding of the consequences of our actions. Therefore it is highly likely that a great many of our young drivers are not properly “cognitively equipped” before going out onto the open road.

How can we better cognitively equip our young drivers? The lessons learnt from aviation training can show us the way. In the 90’s research was conducted by Prof. Gopher on pilots from two air forces who undertook computer-based cognitive training. The outcome was that flight performance improved by 30% and subsequently cognitive training has been embedded into pilot training.

Cognitive training is effective in improving situation awareness skills - what’s going on around us and how to respond to it appropriately. Research conducted with F-15 pilots has shown that if experience is equal, then cognitive ability is the best predictor of a pilot’s situation awareness. The link between cognitive ability and situation awareness goes some way to explaining why Gopher’s cognitive training was so effective in improving pilot flight performance.

An individual’s situation awareness capabilities, whether it be driving a car, flying a plane or engaging in fast-moving ball sports, will impact on the decisions they make and the time they have to perform the task that their decision dictates. The process of situation awareness starts with an individual’s abilities - both physical and mental, experience (of which learner drivers have little to none), and training. The quality of which will be a strong determinant of how their information processing systems will help them cope with a situation that requires rapid and accurate action.

Strong cognitive and perceptual skills, what the Australian National Medical Licensing Standards would describe as “sensory inputs” such as vision and hearing, are crucial to the task of perceiving and interpreting information. Enhancing these sensory inputs equates to a faster and more accurate projection of the current situation. Thus allowing for a faster and more accurate projection of events that are about to unfold. More quickly and accurately making sense of what’s about to unfold leads to better decisions and more time in which to execute the necessary course of action.

A stronger cognitive capacity allows the individual to deal better with rapidly unfolding and cognitively complex situations. It helps combat “cognitive overload” – the inability to effectively cope with the incoming speed and detail of information in any given situation. “Cognitive Overload” is frequently cited as the cause of pilot error in aviation, and now researchers in traffic safety are citing it as a contributing factor to vehicle crashes as well.

“Cognitive overload" is well illustrated in real-life by theinstances where you see learner drivers driving in the slow lane at 10 to 15 kilometres per hour slower than the surrounding traffic. This is a coping strategy, they are actively trying to slow down the speed of information flow” says Prasannah Prabhakharan, a Research Associate with the Transport and Road Safety Research Centre (TARS), School of Aviation, University of New South Wales. Prabhakharan was part of a team that has published research on cognitive overload in drivers.

In the aviation arena he is also part of a team conducting new research studies that are building upon Gopher’s aviation research in the 90’s. Without being able to comment on the current research, Prabhakharan is enthusiastic about the results that Gopher has achieved with pilots back in the 90’s, “One of the most interesting results of Gopher’s findings is that there is a transfer effect of computer-based cognitive training to real-world performance improvements".

Given that the situation awareness process is basically the same for driving and aviation, the implications for road safety is that all drivers (not just learner drivers or problem drivers) can potentially maximise their driving-related cognitive and perceptual abilities through cognitive training. Thereby enhancing their road safety.

So which domains do we need to train to improve driver decision-making skills? The National Medical Licencing Standards of Australia (March 2012 PDF) identify the following sensory inputs and mental skills as being vital to driver decision-making:

  • Vision
  • Visuospatial perception
  • Audio processing
  • Attention and concentration
  • Memory
  • Insight (awareness of abilities)
  • Judgement of speed and distance
  • Reaction time, and
  • Coordination

This illustrates to us that to improve road safety via a computer-based cognitive training program it will be most effective if a multi-domain approach is used.

Such an approach is already in use and has developed a strong track record. Young Drivers of Canada, one of the world’s largest driving schools, has been using computer-based cognitive training with their students for nearly seven years. Their President, Peter Christianson, is a keen advocate of this approach. He is certain that incorporating cognitive training into the Young Drivers course has increased students’ success. The company has seen the license exam pass rate of its students climb to 89% from somewhere in the 70% range. “They are sharper, they see things happening sooner and they react sooner, which makes the examiner more comfortable,” he adds.

Christianson went on to say, “Our feedback data shows us that 26 percent of new drivers do not have the cognitive ability to drive collision-free. Their brains will continue to improve up to age 25 although this can be earlier if they use an on-line cognitive training program. The issue for parents is: are they [their children] in the higher risk 26 % or the safer 74%?”.

The observations of Christianson and his instructors also support Prabhakharan’s views on cognitive overload, especially identifying divided-attention as a particular problem “They haven’t identified the time in which they need to react to a problem and they get so easily distracted that they won’t see it in time. So if they are tuning a radio, talking to their friends in their car, then they just shut down the driving-task for that one and a half seconds and there lies the problem,”says Christianson.

Advanced driver training courses have come in for criticism from some quarters, suggesting that they can lead to driver over-confidence and therefore may have a negative impact on driver safety. However Prabhakharan does not seem to think that cognitive training could lead to over-confidence in drivers."There is a difference between behavioural skills and cognitive skills. With behavioural skills there is the potential for a lot of testing of boundaries; getting into skids, speeding, etc. However with good cognitive skills comes a better appraisal of the situation through the quality of the information received and the output. Cognition occurs both actively and passively, so while initially cognitive tasks may be active and demanding [e.g. in a learner driver], over time, they can become intuitive, automated and more fluent.” Prabhakharan’s premise being that because the cognitive improvements are largely made out of awareness of the individual, it is less likely to lead to active boundary-testing.

The benefits of cognitive training, if it can provide learner drivers with quantifiable feedback, could also help road safety authorities overcome the problems of disassociation. Prabhakharan thinks disassociation is particularly prevalent in the demographic of younger drivers. “We need young inexperienced drivers to understand that they (personally) are part of the population (crash statistics) and not somehow above the population, we need them to understand that their behaviour is what’s causing this statistic”. Prabhakharan would like to see any computer-based cognitive training initiative provide drivers with a high degree of personalisation, ensuring that the individual relates to the data and associates it as being applicable to them personally.

Experience is only useful if you learn from it. Recent research findings from the Disconnected Mind Project suggest that it is a well-connected brain that makes us more (generally) intelligent. Computer-based cognitive training programs (high-quality) build new neural pathways and strengthen existing ones, leading to an enhanced capacity to learn. That they do so in the driving-task is evidenced not only by the results generated by Young Drivers of Canada, but also from results from the British School of Motoring. Where computer-based cognitive training raised the test pass rate from 42% to 58%, a 16- point increase representing a 38% improvement in passing the world’s toughest road test.

Can the lessons we learn from flying help stop young drivers dying? We have little doubt that they can. Cogmetrix looks forward to working with researchers, software manufacturers and road safety authorities, helping to package (e.g.FleetRisk) the systems and education processes necessary to effectively roll these initiatives out to Australian and New Zealand drivers.

Duncan Ferguson