Driving simulator tries to answer if it is safe to drive after a concussion

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Source: Alex Hicks Jr. / Spartanburg Herald-Journal

After a concussion, a person is likely to experience a mix of cognitive issues, vision problems, headaches, nausea, and even mood problems that can make their daily activities difficult or potentially dangerous. They may be forced to take time off work or school, as well as being told to avoid athletic activities.

Despite all this, the vast majority of people who have experienced a concussion say they drove before they had fully recovered. Many even get behind the wheel the same day they are injured.

The biggest issue is that there are few to no guidelines addressing the safety of driving after a concussion. While health experts know brain injuries can affect numerous factors that could make person unsafe behind the wheel, it has been difficult to establish exactly where the line is.

No one has been able to answer the question “when is it safe to drive after a concussion?”

Now a team of researchers say they are working to provide exactly such an answer.

The team, led by Dr. John Lucas of the Sports Medicine Institute, is using an advanced driving simulator to measure the driving performance of teen athletes after brain injuries.

The simulator, developed by the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) and DriveSafety, can measure wheel reaction times, footbrake reaction times, and drivers’ reactions in different scenarios.

“When I was in my fellowship at Wake Forest we began a discussion of driving recommendations and counseling athletes’ parents about driving following concussions,” Lucas told GoUpstate.com. “It was uncharted territory. Once I came down here I wanted to continue, and our institution happened to be reaching out to CU-ICAR about the driving simulator. It was perfect.”

“The aim of the study is to take a non-concussed cohort of patients and see how they do,” he explained. “That data has been very homogeneous. Most people do pretty well. They have quick reaction times, they’re pretty good drivers. Because that data is not scattered about, because we can see people are doing about the same from the pilot data, the goal is to put people who have experienced a concussion through it and see if there are differences.”

While the research is in its early stages and has yet to lead to any concrete findings, the early tests already suggest that concussed drivers may be a danger on the road even if they don’t recognize it.

Molly-Grayson Lawson, a South Carolina tennis player who recently experienced a concussion and spent time in the simulator, says the test revealed problems she hadn’t recognized on her own.

“Throughout the whole thing, I felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me,” she said. “I couldn’t tell if what I was seeing was really on the screen. My vision was blurry. There are arrows that tell you when and how to turn the wheels, I thought I was doing good, and my times came up delayed. I didn’t do well at all.”

In time, Lucas says he hopes to develop a guideline that could protect young athletes or other concussed individuals from driving before they are ready.

“We absolutely know that reaction time is affected,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of reaction time, frontal cortex stuff that goes into driving. Drivers have to plan and strategize. If those things aren’t clicking, the question becomes should people be driving after a concussion. I think what we’ll likely find is that some are OK, and some absolutely should not be. That’s the whole point of the research. We don’t know right now. Down the road, our future goals will be to identify those who shouldn’t be driving and determine when it’s safe for them to return.”

Until such a guideline can be created, Lucas says it is important to exercise caution about driving after brain injuries.

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