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Harnessing new technology to keep older people behind the wheel for longer

Visit SPARC website

11 September 2008

A new study has highlighted the key role technology could play in extending the age at which people can drive safely on our roads.

With input from older people, researchers from the University of the West of England, Bristol, have identified ideas for innovative in-car information systems which, if developed, could help compensate for the reduction in reaction time that affects many drivers as they get older.

The research could give older people the confidence to continue driving for as long as their capabilities allow. Crucially, because the systems would not take control of the car away from the driver, they would also enable users to retain their sense of independence.

Undertaken as part of the SPARC (Strategic Promotion of Ageing Research Capacity) initiative, the study will be discussed at this year’s BA Festival of Science in Liverpool on Thursday 11th September. SPARC is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Specific ideas generated include:

  • A system that unobtrusively displays road sign information through a head-up display on the windscreen. This is a see-through display that shows information without impeding the user’s view. Harnessing Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, this would track a car’s position and identify approaching signs. Exactly the same information contained in the signs would then appear on the windscreen at the right moment. The driver would therefore not have to keep scouring the road side for information
  • A system providing the driver with audible feedback on their current speed, again harnessing GPS technology. For example, one short, non-distracting bleep could indicate the car is approaching the local speed limit; a longer bleep could indicate the speed limit has been reached. The driver would therefore not have to look at the dashboard so often

The systems have the potential to minimise the amount of time drivers divert their attention from the road ahead, cutting the chance of an accident.

These ideas emerged as a direct result of a groundbreaking survey of older people’s driving-related needs and attitudes undertaken as part of the study. This was the first-ever wholly qualitative* study to focus specifically on this topic. Over a six-month period, focus groups and interviews were conducted with a sample of 57 people aged between 65 and 85. The sample included a balance of men and women, those living in urban and rural areas, and people who were still driving as well as those who had given up.

A key finding was the important psychological role that driving plays in older people’s lives, in contributing to feelings of independence and freedom, and their quality of life.

Those surveyed expressed strong reservations about in-car technologies now under development which aim to take an element of control away from the driver (e.g. systems automatically limiting car speeds or regulating the distance between a car and the vehicle in front). By constraining feelings of independence, such technologies could discourage older people from driving even though they are still physically capable.

But a strong preference was expressed for technologies which simply improve information provision and aid decision-making, such as the GPS-based systems described above.

"Our research highlights issues that have been overlooked by car designers and those advising older people on lifestyles", says Dr Charles Musselwhite, who led the study. "The current emphasis on developing technologies which take over part of the driving task may actually end up deterring older drivers. By contrast, better in-car information systems could help them drive safely and ensure they want to keep driving."

Dr Musselwhite and his team are now planning to work with technical experts to produce a prototype speed information system and in-car road sign information display system.


Notes to editors

The 14-month study ‘Prolonging Safe Driver Behaviour through Technology: Attitudes of Older Drivers’ received financial support from SPARC of £27,564. Additional support was received from the University of the West of England.

The study also highlighted that:

  • Older women are currently more likely than older men to give up driving voluntarily. This may be because driving tends to play a different role in older men's perception of status and role
  • Older drivers' needs can be split into three categories: practical (e.g. going to the shops or doctor's surgery), social (e.g. visiting friends and attending functions) and aesthetic (e.g. enjoying the countryside and fulfilment of independence and control over one's life)

* Qualitative research is designed to explore beliefs, attitudes and perceptions through focus group discussions, for example. By contrast, its counterpart, quantitative research, involves asking respondents to identify with one or more of a selection of pre-determined answers to structured questions.

The Research Councils are taking this area of research forward through the cross-Council programme on Life Long Health and Wellbeing, which includes the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council in addition to BBSRC and EPSRC.

The BA Festival of Science will take place in Liverpool from 6-11 September bringing over 350 of the UK’s top scientists and engineers to discuss the latest developments in science with the public. In addition to talks and debates at the University of Liverpool, there will be a host of events happening throughout the city as part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations.

Dr Charles Musselwhite will be giving a presentation on Thursday 11th September at The Foresight Centre, University of Liverpool (see This will form part of the ‘Older People Going Places’ event organised by SPARC which will run from 1.30pm on this date. Dr Musselwhite will also be taking part in a press conference at 10.45am on 11th September where he will be discussing his work.

An image is available from the EPSRC Press office, see contact below.
Image caption: Game of life – this boardgame was developed and used by the researchers to help discern older people’s attitudes to driving.


SPARC is a unique initiative supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to encourage the greater involvement of researchers in the many issues faced by an ageing population and encountered by older people in their daily lives. SPARC is directed, managed and informed by the broader community of researchers, practitioners, policy makers and older people for the ultimate benefit of older people, their carers and those who provide services to older people.


The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

About the BA Festival of Science

The BA Festival of Science 2008 is being organised by the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) in partnership with the University of Liverpool. It is supported by the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, the Liverpool Culture Company and the Northwest Regional Development Agency.

About the BA

The BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) is the UK's nationwide, open membership organisation that exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering. Established in 1831, the BA organises major initiatives across the UK, including National Science and Engineering Week, the annual BA Festival of Science, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges. The BA also organises specific activities for the science communication community in the UK through its Science in Society programme.

External contact

Dr Charles Musselwhite, Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England

tel: 0117 328 3010

Judy Moreton, EPSRC Press Office

tel: 01793 413084


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299