Improving driving safety assessments for people with dementia

Research project: Improving the assessment of driving safety in cognitive impairment

Lead Investigator: Dr Paul Donaghy 

  • Institution: Newcastle University
  • Grant type: PhD Studentship
  • Duration: 36 months
  • Amount: £72,468

Why did we fund this research?

Comments from our Research Network volunteers:

The question of the ability and drive is, in my experience, a very real worry and concern to patients and carers alike. A ''tool'' which is more predictable than that currently in use would be very welcome. 

Project summary

Many people with dementia in the UK will hold a driving licence. Healthcare professionals are expected to advise people with dementia about the impact their condition may have on driving. This project aims to develop a tool to help healthcare professionals identify whether a person with dementia is safe to drive. 

The background 

Many people with dementia are drivers. Dementia can affect skills related to driving, such as attention, planning, vision, remembering routes and recognising hazards. Some people with dementia will be safe to drive but others should be advised to stop driving. 

Healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses and occupational therapists have a responsibility to advise people with dementia how their condition may affect their ability to drive. However, there is little research to help healthcare professionals do this.

This may result in unsafe drivers being advised to continue driving, causing increased risk to them and other road users. It also may cause safe drivers to be advised to stop driving, causing an unnecessary loss of independence, inconvenience and distress to them and their loved ones.

What does this project involve?

Dr Donaghy and his team want to develop a tool that will help medical professionals identify safe and unsafe drivers in clinics. The tool will also highlight people who would benefit from further assessment, such as a specialist driving assessment. The team will first recruit a group of people with dementia or mild cognitive impairment who have been referred for a specialist driving assessment.. 

Before the driving assessment participants will be asked to take part in a clinical assessment of a number of variables that are believed to be associated with driving safety. They will then undergo the driving assessment which will evaluate physical, visual and cognitive function. This will be followed by an on-road driving assessment lasting between 45 minutes and one hour. 

The results from the clinical assessment will be compared to the results from the driving assessment and help the research team to identify the best predictors of driving safety. The researcher will use this information to develop a clinical tool to predict driving safety. The tool will classify participants as ‘likely safe’, ‘likely unsafe’ and ‘uncertain - needs further assessment’. 

In the next phase, the tool will be tested in a new group of participants and compared with the driving assessment to see if it works. The team predict that if the tool classifies someone as ‘likely safe’ they will almost always pass their driving assessment. If the tool classifies someone as ‘likely unsafe’ they will almost always fail their assessment. The team plan for the tool to be used in clinics immediately after the project is complete.  

 How will this project help people with dementia?

The decision of whether to continue to drive or not is one that can cause a lot of distress for people with dementia and their families. 

This project will help to equip clinicians with the tools to make an informed decision on whether a person with dementia is safe to drive. This will benefit people with dementia because it will ensure those who are safe to drive can maintain their independence, and those who are unsafe to drive will be less at risk of harm.