Funded by The Road Safety Trust, the two-year-long study in conjunction with Monash University in Australia will be headed by Professor Andrew Morris, of the Transport Safety Research Centre in the School of Design and Creative Arts.
Driving is a complex activity requiring a multitude of cognitive skills and abilities. For people with dementia, driving inevitably becomes more difficult and they may become unsafe on roads.
Researchers have found that people with mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to dementia, often experience a decline in their ability to scan with their eyes.
Visual scanning skills help drivers judge risk and predict upcoming traffic problems.
A decline in these abilities could therefore play a large role in making people with early dementia unsafe drivers. For example, small changes in visual scanning may reduce reaction times and/or result in failure to notice important cues.
The project aims to contribute to the development of a screening test that will be capable of detecting impaired driving performance in people with early stages of dementia/mild cognitive impairment.
To do this, researchers will first use driving simulators to examine how a reduction in eye-scanning skills can affect hazard perception during a driving task.
They will then explore how well non-invasive eye scanning tests assess study participants’ ability to drive. The results will be compared to traditional dementia screening tests to see if eye scanning is a reliable way to assess driving ability.
Professor Andrew Morris said: “We are hoping to develop new processes for detecting when an individual's driving performance is critically affected by worsening performance on visual perception tasks.
"This can manifest itself in the very early stages of dementia, but it can only be determined through careful evaluations involving screening of those affected.
"Our project is therefore looking to standardise screening tests that can be used in the general community. However, we realise that this can be a highly emotive issue, so we are also looking at ways to potentially lessen the impact of diagnosis in terms of driving.”
Ruth Purdie OBE, interim chief executive of The Road Safety Trust, said: “It is well known that dementia, because it can affect an individual's fitness to drive, increases the chances of being involved in a collision.
“This project will hopefully improve the way in which we identify individuals in the early stages of dementia who are unfit to drive.”
The project will also explore how individuals with mild cognitive impairment perceive technology designed to offer driving feedback, like voice guidance or actions carried out by automated vehicles.
This exploration is motivated by the potential of technological advancements to enable individuals with mild cognitive impairment, who can no longer drive safely, to regain their ability to drive.
The project is set to conclude in summer 2025.