The Effects of Aging On Reaction Time While Driving by Tristan Phegley



The purpose of this paper is to explore the stereotype of how older adults are “bad drivers” and analyze articles that either support or deny this stereotype.  Throughout these articles, there will be studies done to analyze the reaction time of these older adults and see if their reaction time becomes worse, better, or stays the same over time.  Generally, many of these types of articles follow a similar trend but the studies done in these experiments are very unique and can be beneficial information.

Stereotype Threat Impairs Older Adult Driving

In this study, there were sixty licensed, older adult drivers with normal or corrected-to-normal vision from the Salt Lake City community.  Participants were initially contacted if they had previously indicated interest in participating in psychological research by visiting a lab-staffed booth at a local senior fair and providing their names and phone numbers (Lambert, 2015).  The participants in this study completed two sessions one to 14 days apart.  In session one, visual acuity and color blindness were assessed, stereotype threat was manipulated, and driving performance was measured (Lambert, 2015).  In session two, working memory capacity, or WMC, was tested by operation span task, or OSPAN, measuring the individual differences of how well the participants could memorize words while concurrently solving math problems.  During all this, certain participants had the stereotype threat addressed as they did the exercises and others did not have the stereotype threat addressed.  They examined brake reaction time to determine whether stereotype threat produced slower response times for older adults with reduced WMC, a finding that would be consistent with distracted driving.  The results were actually very interesting.  When there was a stereotype threat involved, the older adults’ reaction times were worse than when there was no stereotype threat involved.  These older drivers under stereotype threat were lower in WMC and had slower brake reaction times and longer following distances (Lambert, 2015).  This study supports the claim of a stereotype threat amongst older adults where if society thinks they’re “bad drivers” and they accept that then they will be more likely to not be too good of a driver.

Typical Brake Reaction Times Across the Life Span

Subjects in this study were recruited from six community health fairs and clinics across North Carolina (Dickerson, 2015).  An RT-2S Simple Brake Reaction Timer was positioned on a table or in a chair in front of a participant so the green/red lights were clearly visible.  Using the same folding chair for each participant, subjects were asked to position the chair in front of the accelerator and brake pedals so that they were comfortable and in approximate position to pedals in their motor vehicle (Dickerson, 2015).  Of the 830 participants in the sample, the reaction times ranged from 0.36 seconds and 0.66 seconds for males and 0.41 seconds to 0.69 seconds for females.  In this study, the age of people ranged from under 20 to 80 years old.  The objective of this study was to provide updated norms for a simple brake reaction timer, specifically the RT-2S (Dickerson, 2015).  This study was mainly to analyze the difference of reaction times between males and females but they also noticed that, generally, the older the participant was, the longer/slower their reaction time was.  So this article supports the theory that the older you get, the more your reaction time slows down and you could be considered a “bad driver”.

Do Older Drivers At-Risk for Crashes Modify Their Driving Over Time?

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration project was a prospective cohort study designed to investigate driving crash risk, competency, and general mobility among older adults (Ross, 2009).  After two years of enrollment for the study, 2114 people participated, all above the age of 55.  This study included a Driving Habit Questionnaire, where driving habits were assessed.  Driving frequency was measured as the number of days participants reported driving in an average week (0-7), with more days per week driven indicating greater driving frequency (Ross, 2009).  Also, driving avoidance was measured by the avoidance during the previous three months of driving on high traffic roads, driving in unfamiliar areas, driving alone, driving on highways or expressways, making left-hand turns across oncoming traffic, driving in bad weather, driving during rush-hour traffic, making lane changes, and passing up opportunities to go shopping, visit friends, etc., due to driving concerns (Ross, 2009).   Participants responded on a scale from 1 to 5, 1 being never and 5 being always, to each of these situations, and the scores ranged from 10-50, the higher scores indicating more avoidance.  Processing speed was also assessed with a UFOV test which assesses cognitive processing speed and it has been shown to be a valid and reliable predictor of mobility outcomes and vehicle crashes in older adults.  Through these studies, the data followed the same trends.  With increased age, the majority of participants tended to drive less frequently over time.  Additionally, there was an overall increase in driving avoidance over time as well.  This study sought to investigate driving mobility and behavior while addressing crash risk in a prospective study (Ross, 2009).  Driving mobility and crash risk are still clearly areas where future longitudinal research is needed, but from these trends, the older you get the more at-risk you are to drive.

Improving Older Driver’s Hazard Perception Ability

Twenty-eight currently licensed drivers who were 65 years or older were recruited from a sample of community-dwelling individuals (Horswill, 2010).  First, they used a hazard perception test in which participants viewed video footage of a driver’s eye view of unstaged hazardous traffic conditions.  The participants were instructed to touch any road user (cyclists, pedestrians, cars, etc.) who was likely to become involved in a traffic conflict with the camera car as early as possible (Horswill, 2010).  Participants completed several motor, vision, and cognitive tests in order to ensure there were no differences in cognitive functions between experimental groups and to screen for individuals with clinical disorders.  After all of this training, at the end of the study they did not see very much change in the participants’ perception of hazardous situations on the road.  There was slight improvement in older drivers’ hazard perception latencies but there could be a lot more improvement for these older adults.  Concluding that older adults’ perceptions are not as developed and could use more work.


In these four articles, the stereotype of whether or not older adults are “bad drivers” was explored and each article seemed to each have the same outcome and that is older adults tend to become worse or more afraid to drive over time.  Generally, it seems that the more conscious older adults are of the stereotypes, the more likely they are going to fall into those stereotypes.  If the older adults are willing to improve their habits as they get older, the more likely they will be to not follow the stereotypes society is used to.




Dickerson, A. E., Reistetter, T. A., Burhans, S., & Apple, K. (2016). Typical brake reaction

times across the life span. Occupational Therapy In Health Care, 30(2), 115-123.


Horswill, M. S., Kemala, C. N., Wetton, M., Scialfa, C. T., & Pachana, N. A. (2010). Improving

older drivers’ hazard perception ability. Psychology And Aging, 25(2), 464-469.


Lambert, A. E., Watson, J. M., Stefanucci, J. K., Ward, N., Bakdash, J. Z., & Strayer, D. L.

(2016). Stereotype threat impairs older adult driving. Applied Cognitive Psychology,

30(1), 22-28. doi:10.1002/acp.3162

Ross, L. A., Clay, O. J., Edwards, J. D., Ball, K. K., Wadley, V. G., Vance, D. E., & … Joyce, J.

  1. (2009). Do older drivers at-risk for crashes modify their driving over time?. The


Journals Of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences And Social Sciences, 64(2),

163-170. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbn034


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