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Discussing Cognitive Fitness and Driving with Peter Christianson

CogniFit LogoA person’s cognitive fitness is directly related to their ability to drive safely and collision free. Few people know that as well as Peter Christianson, President of Young Drivers of Canada; one of the world’s most renowned driver education institutions.

Game Forward
recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Christianson about how his company integrates an innovative software product designed by CogniFit into its training program in order to evaluate a student’s cognitive abilities and produce a personalized training regimen. Read More...

Peter Christianson was but four years old when he was thrown into the back seat of his father’s car moments before a head-on collision took place. A young surgeon, Peter’s father died instantly after his car hit a patch of ice, then a gravel shoulder and slammed into an oncoming bus, ejecting him from the vehicle. Seatbelts were not standard equipment, and were in most cases, unavailable in cars at the time.

Peter was greatly affected by his father’s death and when it came time for him to learn how to drive at 16, he was understandably afraid. Knowing first-hand how dangerous driving can be, it took over a year of practise for him to gain the assurance to take his license test. Shortly thereafter, he gained enough confidence and skill to begin racing cars professionally in both Canada and the United States.

During this time, Christianson lost five friends in automobile collisions, including two that were killed in head-on collisions like his father. In 1967, he became a licensed driving instructor with the intention of helping others avoid costly mistakes and bad decisions while behind the wheel.

Mr. Christianson became a Young Drivers of Canada franchise owner in 1975 and quickly moved up in the company, becoming Director of Centre Operations in 1979 and President in 1984. A few years later, he bought Young Drivers and established schools in both the United States and Europe.

Young Drivers has enrolled more than a million students since its inception. Though the core lessons and methodology of defensive and collision free driving remain virtually unchanged since I learned to drive with them over 15 years ago, the understanding of cognitive fitness as well as training software and technology have evolved quite a bit since then.

Peter Christianson was first introduced to the CogniFit software while working with Ford of Europe. “Ford was my partner for a few years and they didn’t know what to make of the product so they sent CogniFit to me,” said Christianson. After evaluating a successful year-long pilot program with the British School of Motoring - the world’s largest driving school - Young Drivers became actively involved with the development of the software. In 2003, the company became the exclusive Canadian licensee for the product now known as DriveFit.

Since then, Young Drivers has slowly integrated the software into its curriculum. The initial DriveFit assessment was originally optional, though approximately half of Young Drivers’ students - 80 percent of which are teenagers - volunteered to take the assessment. “And that in itself was brilliant, because we ended up getting a wonderful research study set up,” Peter says. “I wanted to get these first three or four years under our belt with two different groups to measure.”

The DriveFit software assesses a student’s ability to drive collision free and assigns him or her with a rating from one to five. A person scoring a 5 on the scale would be considered extremely safe and someone who scores a 1 or a 2 is much more likely to crash. In a study of over 12,000 Young Drivers students, Christianson and his research team found that 43 percent of students were at significant risk of crashing, while 25 percent of those that took the assessment were extremely safe.

When the Young Drivers instructors were put to the test, the company found that DriveFit had an 87 percent accuracy rate in predicting which instructors would crash. “It blew us away that it was that predictive, almost right on. It obviously showed us that we need to do the training for all of our instructor team, because we have to reduce that risk. We’re on the road 12 hours a day, so if a problem is going to happen, it’s going to happen to us.”

I had the opportunity to try a demo of the DriveFit software, which is available on the Young Drivers website. It contains both evaluation and training exercises. The evaluation portion presents two interactive tasks: Speed Estimation and Perceptual Speed. The first exercise displays several coloured balls that move across the screen at different speeds, asking you to determine which one was the fastest.

Perceptual Speed briefly displays strings of letters, numbers and symbols within a small window. Users are then asked to select the string they saw from a list. These tasks are reminiscent of those found in popular brain training games like Brain Age from Nintendo.

A user’s evaluation results are graded with their gender and age in mind. In the full version, DriveFit assesses 12 different driving-related cognitive abilities in order to create a personalized training program based on a user’s cognitive strengths, weaknesses and needs. The training is then completed in 20 minute sessions for a total of eight hours.

In its study of DriveFit assessments, Young Drivers found that divided attention was the biggest problem among its students. Christianson explains this by stating that teenage brains are still developing cognitively which limits their ability to recognize problems ahead of time. “They haven’t identified the time in which they need to react to a problem and they get so easily distracted that they won’t see it in time. So if they are tuning a radio, talking to their friends in their car, then they just shut down the driving task for that one and a half second and there lies the problem,” he adds.

Young Drivers has strong evidence to support the effectiveness of the DriveFit assessment and training program. Instructors have reported that when a student is identified as having a narrow field of vision or as a risk-taker through the software, they see these traits and behaviours when the student begins in-car lessons. As students complete training sessions, built to strengthen their cognitive shortcomings, instructors notice marked improvements in their in-car performance as well as the recognition and correction of dangerous behaviours.

A European study by MAAF Insurance found that more than 90 percent of drivers in group 1 - the ones most likely to crash - were able to improve by at least one ranking through the training. The trend is similar for those in groups 2, 3 and 4 as well. “So there is no question that even people who were identified as weak cognitively can improve.”

The inclusion of DriveFit has changed the makeup of the Young Drivers course somewhat. Students now go through 10 hours of e-learning, during which they take the initial DriveFit assessment, in addition to traditional in-class and in-car lessons. They are also encouraged to complete the DriveFit training tasks throughout the e-learning and classroom phases of the course, so that by the time they begin the in-car lessons they have a print-out detailing their cognitive abilities. This print-out assists the instructor in tailoring the training to a student’s individual needs.

Though Christianson couldn’t provide hard numbers, he is certain that incorporating cognitive training into the Young Drivers course has increased students’ success. The company has seen the license exam pass rate of its students climb to 89 percent from somewhere in the 70 percent range. “They are sharper, they see things happening sooner and they react sooner, which makes the examiner more comfortable,” he adds.

But the DriveFit software is not only for new drivers. CogniFit also offers one version specifically designed for senior drivers and another made for fleet drivers. However, Christianson outlines some difficulties in getting seniors and fleets on board with the software, for different sets of reasons.

With senior drivers, it may be a case of pride. Seniors who do not want to lose any of their independence are generally hesitant to be assessed, feeling that the results may jeopardize their ability to drive. On the other hand, Christianson believes that if a person’s ability to drive is threatened by a child’s worry that their elderly parent is no longer fit to drive or by a mandated government test, seniors will be more receptive to the assessment.

Tom Warden of Allstate Insurance, with whom Christianson recently sat during a panel at the 2009 Games for Health conference in Boston, MA was recently quoted as saying only about 8 percent of seniors accepted an invitation to try software similar to DriveFit during a study, even though Allstate included free gas cards as an incentive.

As for fleet managers, the biggest barrier to adopting the DriveFit software is the current economic climate. In Christianson’s experience, fleet managers are receptive to the FleetFit concept, but simply can’t move forward with implementing it at this time due to budget restraints.

Cognitive training programs face hurdles to becoming widely accepted because of the generalized belief that there is little anyone can do to improve a person’s cognitive abilities. Traditional training programs also tend to be clinical and stale and most people are simply unaware of the existence of effective and “fun” cognitive training programs like CogniFit.

As these training programs become more game-like in their presentation, their success, acceptance and recognition may increase, but their designers have a fine balance to maintain. “I think it’s an uphill battle for those who produce products that are scientific. As you make them fun, I think people buy them for the fun part but I am not so sure the effect is going to be there that way,” concludes Christianson.