Brain games to improve driving

    A car insurer is pairing up with a neuroscience company to ask whether brain exercises can reduce crashes in PA.

    This holiday weekend is a busy time for millions of drivers making long-distance trips to visit family. It’s also a busy time for insurance companies, having to process extra accident claims. One insurer is testing out a new method for reducing crashes – exercising drivers’ brains.

    headphonesListen: [audio:sci20081125brain.mp3]

    Get the mp3 »

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor



    After 40 years of driving John Sollenberger had his first car accident earlier this year.

    Sollenberger: I was pulling out of a shopping center parking lot and there was a person in front of me and I was watching the traffic instead of watching the person in front of me. I thought they should have been gone. I started to go, slammed on the brakes, but I was a little too late and so I just bumped into their rear end.

    Unrelated to the accident, Sollenberger received a letter from his car insurer offering a software program that could improve his driving. So he decided to give it a go.

    Sollenberger: So you gotta identify the right car and where the route 66 sign is on the periphery.

    The cars and sign flash on screen for just a few milliseconds. With my untrained eye, I can’t locate the objects accurately. But with practice, people improve. Henry Mahncke, the vice president for research at Posit Science, the company that makes the brain exercise software, says the goal isn’t to reteach people how to drive.

    Mahncke: In our viewpoint older drivers often know a lot about driving they’ve had a lifetime of driving experience. What we try and do is retrain how the brain works, literally retrain how the brain processes information to make it quicker and more accurate, so that the brain gets better quality information in through the eyes and in through the visual system so that a person can see what’s going on in their environment more rapidly, more clearly and more accurately.

    And that, says Mahncke, will make for better drivers. Among people aged 50-75 in Pennsylvania last year, there were more than 40,000 crashes reported to the state, and nearly 500 people died. There are a number of programs like Posit’s aimed at boosting the brain’s perception and processing of visual stimuli. They’ve all emerged in the last decade after the discovery that adult brains can change, adapt, improve – if they are exercised appropriately. Ausim Azizi, a neurology professor at Temple Medical School, says the exercises should be useful in older adults, because as we age we become less adept at multitasking.

    Azizi: If you can go through these types of exercises and teach the driver to pay attention not only to driving but to other things that are happening in the environment, that could be useful. however the clinical evidence for this is not 100% for how is actually works in the real world for driving.

    That’s why Allstate Insurance paired up with Posit Science to test the program among older Pennsylvania drivers. The car insurer is offering it free to customers like John Sollenberger, says Allstate’s regional distribution leader John Kane.

    Kane: We’re projecting right now based on what science is telling us that we’re going to probably be able to reduce accidents as much as 50%. Near miss collisions maybe as much as 40%.

    Kane says the test will take about 18 months to generate sufficient evidence about whether the software reduces crashes in Pennsylvania. Azizi says that would be enough to convince him the program works.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal