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Video Games Studied as Training Tool For Older Drivers

The world's elderly population is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. In the U.S. alone, by the year 2030, there will be an estimated 70 million older Americans. One in every four drivers on the road will be over the age of 65. VOA's Melinda Smith reports on one way older motorists might help improve their driving skills.

Elderly motorists have a higher rate of involvement in auto accidents than other groups. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that while older people represent nine percent of the U.S. population, older drivers account for 14 percent of traffic deaths and 17 percent of pedestrian deaths.

So what can a younger driver do before his or her reflexes and peripheral [side] vision starts to affect safety? It is a source of concern for Steve Kramer and his wife Donna.

They are playing a video game made by a company that says it helps sharpen the brain.

"At first I thought, ha ha, just another game. But as you got into it, it got difficult and then more difficult," Steve recalled.

The Kramers are participating in an experimental program offered by an automobile insurance company to drivers aged 50 and over in the state of Pennsylvania.

"This might be an opportunity where we can offer a discount to someone based on the fact that they have taken the program," John Kane, who is with Allstate Insurance said. "...and improved their driving skills."

Another driver, Robert Lovelace, says keeping up with the game's animated characters is harder than he thought. "When you think you've mastered a task, it kicks it up a notch [accelerates the speed] and you're almost back to square one. [back to the beginning]," Lovelace said.

Researchers like Gary Small of the University of California at Los Angeles say mastering the computer does keep your brain active.

He illustrates the activity of the brain as it reads a book, versus surfing the Internet.

"We do find lasting effects with some of these programs," Small said.

If ideas like the video games are shown to be effective, then elder drivers, for example, might learn to be more alert when other cars enter the intersection.

The highway safety experts say two of the most common causes of accidents involving older people are failing to yield the right of way and making unusually wide left turns.

Many states now require elderly motorists to come in more frequently for testing. The researchers are hoping these video games will help make highways safer for everyone.