Toronto, Ontario – Older drivers tend to be less cautious behind the wheel when roadways are slightly more illuminated, according to a study by Toronto’s Ryerson University.

The study was funded by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, which wanted to determine whether slightly increasing the light intensity on Ontario highways would improve older drivers’ performance on roads. The researchers said the finding took them by surprise.

“No one has studied older drivers’ driving behaviour and performance at night before in great detail, despite the fact that this is the fastest-growing group of drivers in the province,” said Professor Said Easa, co-author of the study.

Drivers 60 years and older make up 13 per cent of Ontario’s licensed drivers. The researchers surveyed the nighttime driving habits of 219 adults 60 years and older. They also tested the visual and cognitive abilities of a second group of 97 adults, ranging from 19 to 84 years, and asked them to describe their nighttime driving experiences. Finally, 75 drivers of that group took a road test in a driving simulator lab, first under light conditions typical of Ontario roads at night, and then at a slightly brighter illumination.

Older drivers from the second group were able to see and respond faster to information signs when the highway was more brightly lit. Survey data showed that many seniors often miss signs on roads while driving at night, which causes them problems in finding their way and other traffic issues. However, all drivers, including seniors, became less cautious under brighter road conditions, exceeding the speed limit and driving onto the road shoulder more often. Older adults were also less accurate and precise in following road curves.

Older drivers who rarely drove or avoided driving at night were less accurate and braked faster when they were driving with more light, and were more cautious and stayed within their lanes more often under low-light conditions. Overall, participants who reported they drove less frequently or avoided driving entirely had the most driving problems at night.

Easa recommended that lighting should only be increased around highway signs, to help older drivers see this information and have more time to react, but light intensity should remain unchanged in other areas, including those that require extra caution such as around curves.

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