Mind over matter: Training the brain on safe driving

Mind over matter: Training the brain on safe driving
According to latest statistics from Transport Canada, an average of 3,500 people are seriously injured annually in speed-related vehicle crashes. More than 700 people were killed from such crashes between 2002 and 2004. The numbers are greater with crashes involving alcohol use, a factor in almost 30 per cent of crash-related deaths between 2003 and 2005.

Add weather, traffic conditions and driving behaviour to the mix, and road safety becomes a potential nightmare. A study by The Steel Alliance and Canada Safety Council found that 90 per cent of Canadians believe traffic congestion can fuel aggressive driving behaviour. Of those surveyed, 84 per cent admitted they have been guilty of aggressive driving.

But what if we could take the “aggressive driving behaviour” out of the equation? How much of a factor is a driver’s attitude?

Dr. Schlomo Breznitz’s brain-training suite of software under the CogniFit brand claims to have the answers. DriveFit – and its enterprise version, FleetFit – is a computer-based training software designed to improve and enhance the brain’s cognitive abilities. These cognitive abilities are what give human beings the skills they need for everyday life, including driving a motor vehicle.

“Statistics about safety suggest that it takes about two years of experience for the human brain to be able to really deal effectively with the challenges of driving,” explains Breznitz.

“After surveying the literature in this field as much as possible, it became clear that…there are several cognitive issues involved here and it takes the brain time to develop some automaticity, which frees the attention to other important issues that can come up in driving situations.”

As long as driving is not automatic – a mindset which in many cases is attained after a few years of driving experience – it requires tremendous amount of attention from the driver and competes with other issues that need attention as well, explains Breznitz, a former professor of psychology at the University of Haifa in Israel.

The software
Breznitz’s team developed a software that was originally intended as a brain-training program for elderly people who want to maintain their cognitive skills well into their senior years.

After its deployment, succeeding studies into elderly people who used the software indicated significant improvement in their driving behaviour. “Two independent observers actually rated the driving behaviour of these elderly subjects before and after the training, and the studies suggested very, very clearly that cognitive training, in fact, increases the safety of these elderly drivers by enhancing their cognitive skills,” says Breznitz.

The initial success of the software got the attention of the British School of Motoring, said to be one of U.K.’s largest driving schools with about 200,000 new driving students every year. CogniFit then worked with the driving school to develop an iteration of the software, tweaked to cater to young drivers.

The program focuses on several driving-related cognitive skills. One is perceptual skill, which deals with the issue of estimation, Breznitz says. The ability to estimate distance, speed and time are important for a driver’s safety behind the wheels and these are achieved by developing the perceptual skills.

“Our software gives the brain the opportunity to practice estimations in the safety of their home by sitting next to the computer and not always being exposed to the risk of the road,” he says.

Divided and shifting attention is another area that’s developed through cognitive training. This type of skill relates to a driver’s ability to shift focus from one issue to the next with great degree of effectiveness.

The software also covers other areas of the brain’s cognitive abilities including meta-cognition, or the ability to effectively evaluate one’s own skills and plays a major role in a driver’s decision-making process.

CogniFit’s training program is a web-based application, where users are given a user name and password to access the application and start their training. The process involves an initial assessment to determine the level of a driver’s cognitive abilities related to driving safely. The student is given a score on each cognitive ability, which in turn is used to prepare a custom training program based on the student’s strengths and weaknesses.

“So if you have thousands of users, there would hardly be two people after one or two sessions that will be doing exactly the same thing. So it’s very individualized and everybody really does his or her own training,” explains Breznitz.

The full training cycle runs for about eight weeks, divided into three 20-minute sessions each week. At the end of the training cycle, the student goes through a second assessment, which is supposed to provide an indication of the student’s progress and to what extent each of her cognitive skills were enhanced.

CogniFit’s enterprise version of the training software, called FleetFit, is designed to train professional drivers on nine cognitive abilities – reaction time, focus, hand-eye coordination, visual scanning, divided attention, width of visual field, short-term memory, changing plans, and assessment of speed and distance – and three personality traits – risk taking, obeying regulations and confidence.

To start the training program, the student goes through a series of abstract tests designed to evaluate his or her level of strength for each cognitive skill and determine which areas the training should focus more on.

For each skill, the driver is given a score between one and five, with five as the highest score. Once the assessment is completed, the resulting data is sent back to CogniFit’s database and the application generates a training program specifically designed for that student based on the results of his or her initial assessment.

“What the assessment can do – besides helping us to find the optimal training for each person who uses the software – is it can also give us and the company an initial, very detailed evaluation of the risks and of the strengths and weaknesses of each driver,” explains Breznitz.

By knowing a driver’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to driving, the instructor can help the student put more focus on improving on their weaknesses.

Canadian user
One organization in Canada is already realizing the benefits of the CogniFit software.

Peter Christianson, president of driving school Young Drivers of Canada, says he’s firm has been using the software for three years and it’s already enhanced the company’s training program.

Young Drivers cater mostly to new drivers so the company uses CogniFit’s DriveFit training software, which was developed specifically for novice drivers. With young drivers, Christianson says the biggest challenge is divided attention, in which students score an average of 2.15 out five.

“So there lies the problem. We have cars that have things to do in them: we have radios, we have passengers, we have global positioning units. All these things are distractions to take you away from where you’re looking to keep control of the car. And if they are not able to be distracted and get back quickly, then they’re going to be set up for a crash when something goes wrong,” Christianson says.

Currently, Young Drivers of Canada is offering the DriveFit program on a voluntary basis. Only about half of its students are signing up for the DriveFit training. The other half has opted out of the brain training program. This makes an ideal environment for a comparative study on the benefits of cognitive training in driver safety, says Christianson.

These two groups of students – those who had undergone cognitive training and those who have not – will be studied and compared on their driving record moving forward, he says.

The company also deployed the FleetFit software – the training program for professional drivers – and used it to assess the school’s driving instructors. Out of 168 instructors who took the FleetFit assessment, 43 were predicted to be at high-risk of collision, says Christianson. The following year, 26 of them were involved in a crash. Of the 125 instructors who were predicted to be low-risk or safe drivers, only three were involved in a crash.

“So it was considered to be 87.7 per cent accurate in its prediction of collisions,” says Christianson. “Now these collisions might have been caused by a student making a mistake or a driver hitting them in the back when they’re coming to a stop sign, but the instructor is trained to be responsible for that car even though they are not driving.”

Several organizations in Canada are currently either testing or in the process of deploying CogniFit’s training application, says Christianson. He says one company in particular is close to signing a contract to deploy the FleetFit program.

One of the more powerful features that FleetFit offers is its product manager tool, says Christanson. This tool allows the fleet manager to view each driver’s assessment results, including their risk of collision, how much time the drivers have spent on training and their final assessment results, which shows the driver’s improvements.

“There is evidence from Europe that there is significant cognitive improvement from level one where you’re at risk of crash, to level five where you’re safe, which proves that you can improve your cognitive abilities to make you a safer driver,” Christianson says.

Cognitive versus attitude
Spencer McDonald is the president and founder of Thinking Driver, a driver safety training and development company based in Surrey, B.C. He says cognitive training is highly beneficial to new drivers, but doubts that it will have significant impact on more experienced drivers.

“I think the principal use in a program or software such as this is in the early stages of driver education,” says McDonald. “I’m really more feeling that it does marginal benefits in the area of driver improvement or remedial type of driver training for people who are perhaps challenged in managing their driving habits and are experienced drivers.”

Experienced drivers typically have developed the cognitive functions required to operate a vehicle, gained from years of driving, he explains. The highest opportunity for change and improvement when it comes to safety training for experienced drivers is in the “attitudinal domain.”

Attitudinal skills are not a cognitive function, he says, but is based on a person’s belief and value systems. It’s essentially the next step once a person has gathered and processed all information through their cognitive abilities, it’s the decision making phase that the attitudinal domain plays a key role on, McDonald says.

For example, a driver who’s approaching a traffic light needs to be able to notice that the traffic light has been green for a while and that it could turn yellow at any moment and then red. Cognitive training helps the driver develop the skill sets to process that information and identify potential hazards associated with a particular situation. In this case, the driver’s cognitive ability will lead him to recognize the risk of accelerating through the traffic light, which might turn amber at any moment.

The attitudinal component kicks in when a driver recognizes the risks and proceeds to make a decision on what the next step will be. Should he or she press harder on the accelerator or ease up on the gas pedal and prepare to step on the brakes? That decision will be based on that person’s values and beliefs, explains McDonald.

“Cognitive training does not address that type of an issue. Attitudinal training or education does,” he says. Attitudinal training involves allowing people to reflect on the consequences of their decisions against their own belief and value system.

“The day-to-day risk reduction strategies that people use, or risk heightening decisions that people might have to do, is their attitude not their cognitive function. Cognitive functions are critical – they’re a key component – they just don’t, I don’t think, that they really get to the heart of the matter in terms of experienced drivers,” he says.