Purpose. This study investigated how driving performance of young and old participants is affected by visual and auditory secondary tasks on a closed driving course.
Methods. Twenty-eight participants comprising two age groups (younger, mean age = 27.3 years; older, mean age = 69.2 years) drove around a 5.1-km closed-road circuit under both single and dual task conditions. Measures of driving performance included detection and identification of road signs, detection and avoidance of large low-contrast road hazards, gap judgment, lane keeping, and time to complete the course. The dual task required participants to verbally report the sums of pairs of single-digit numbers presented through either a computer speaker (auditorily) or a dashboard-mounted monitor (visually) while driving. Participants also completed a vision and cognitive screening battery, including LogMAR visual acuity, Pelli-Robson letter contrast sensitivity, the Trails test, and the Digit Symbol Substitution (DSS) test.
Results. Drivers reported significantly fewer signs, hit more road hazards, misjudged more gaps, and increased their time to complete the course under the dual task (visual and auditory) conditions compared with the single task condition. The older participants also reported significantly fewer road signs and drove significantly more slowly than the younger participants, and this was exacerbated for the visual dual task condition. The results of the regression analysis revealed that cognitive aging (measured by the DSS and Trails test) rather than chronologic age was a better predictor of the declines seen in driving performance under dual task conditions. An overall z score was calculated, which took into account both driving and the secondary task (summing) performance under the two dual task conditions. Performance was significantly worse for the auditory dual task compared with the visual dual task, and the older participants performed significantly worse than the young subjects.
Conclusions. These findings demonstrate that multitasking had a significant detrimental impact on driving performance and that cognitive aging was the best predictor of the declines seen in driving performance under dual task conditions. These results have implications for use of mobile phones or in-vehicle navigational devices while driving, especially for older adults.