Concussions can impact numerous aspects of cognition that are likely to influence a person’s driving ability, including vision, reaction-time, and coordination. However, there has been very little research on just how much a brain injury affects driving ability. One researcher from the University of Georgia is hoping to change that.
Julianne Schmidt, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s department of kinesiology, is using a series of tests to evaluate how much concussions may impair driving ability and whether driving restrictions may be needed for individuals following a brain injury.
“We have been evaluating concussed athletes, and we have really good guidelines for when athletes are ready to go back to play, and when they are ready to go back to school, but not necessarily for other things, such as going back to driving,” Schmidt said.
People who experience brain injuries are typically instructed to avoid daily activities until symptoms have reduced significantly and they have consulted a healthcare professional. But, according to Schmidt, health care providers often don’t go into detail on what daily activities encompass.
Schmidt is especially interested in the level of impairment in individuals who have experienced concussions but recovered from most symptoms. She notes previously observing how athletes with concussions would exhibit impairments in reaction time and visual processing speed, even when other symptoms have receded.
Working with Hannes Devos, an assistant professor at Georgia Regents University and assistant director of the school’s Driving Simulator Lab, Schmidt was able to create a set of driving and cognition tests she believes will help evaluate the link between brain injuries and driving ability.
“Driving is an over-learned, yet very complex activity that requires the integration of several motor, cognitive and visual functions in order to respond to a constantly changing, dynamic environment,” Devos said. “Concussed individuals may suffer from decreased attention span, confusion and blurry vision, which may impact safe driving.”
For this study, concussed participants were evaluated 48 hours after symptoms had resolved because the researchers believe this is when most people resume driving. All participants completed a set of driving simulation tasks followed by a series of neurocognitive tests which focused on memory, time and spatial awareness to observe how these factors may be linked to predict when individuals are ready to get back behind the wheel.
“We also included some potentially hazardous situations, such as a child crossing the road, to evaluate how concussed individuals react to those unexpected events,” Devos said. “We use a highly advanced, interactive driving simulator to test concussed individuals and age- and sex-matched control drivers.”
The data gained from the research has not been analyzed yet, but Schmidt is hoping the findings may be used to create a widely usable test for physicians and regulators to use.
“We normally do a reaction time test, but if you find that someone has poor reaction time, for example, they are at risk on the road,” Schmidt said. “That is the ultimate goal, to be able to make clinical decisions based off the clinically available tools that we already use.”
“The most important outcome is that we will raise awareness of the potential impact of concussion on the ability to return to driving,” Devos said. “We hope to collect sufficient pilot data for a bigger grant so we can look at more detailed cognitive and on-road driving performance.”