Mind over matter: Training the brain on safe drivingWritten by Mari-Len De Guzman 15 July 2009
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Add weather, traffic conditions and driving behaviour to the mix, and road safety becomes a potential nightmare. A study by The Steel Alliance and Canada Safety Council found that 90 per cent of Canadians believe traffic congestion can fuel aggressive driving behaviour. Of those surveyed, 84 per cent admitted they have been guilty of aggressive driving.
But what if we could take the “aggressive driving behaviour” out of the equation? How much of a factor is a driver’s attitude?
Dr. Schlomo Breznitz’s brain-training suite of software under the CogniFit brand claims to have the answers. DriveFit – and its enterprise version, FleetFit – is a computer-based training software designed to improve and enhance the brain’s cognitive abilities. These cognitive abilities are what give human beings the skills they need for everyday life, including driving a motor vehicle.
“Statistics about safety suggest that it takes about two years of experience for the human brain to be able to really deal effectively with the challenges of driving,” explains Breznitz.
“After surveying the literature in this field as much as possible, it became clear that…there are several cognitive issues involved here and it takes the brain time to develop some automaticity, which frees the attention to other important issues that can come up in driving situations.”
As long as driving is not automatic – a mindset which in many cases is attained after a few years of driving experience – it requires tremendous amount of attention from the driver and competes with other issues that need attention as well, explains Breznitz, a former professor of psychology at the University of Haifa in Israel.
Breznitz’s team developed a software that was originally intended as a brain-training program for elderly people who want to maintain their cognitive skills well into their senior years.
After its deployment, succeeding studies into elderly people who used the software indicated significant improvement in their driving behaviour. “Two independent observers actually rated the driving behaviour of these elderly subjects before and after the training, and the studies suggested very, very clearly that cognitive training, in fact, increases the safety of these elderly drivers by enhancing their cognitive skills,” says Breznitz.
The initial success of the software got the attention of the British School of Motoring, said to be one of U.K.’s largest driving schools with about 200,000 new driving students every year. CogniFit then worked with the driving school to develop an iteration of the software, tweaked to cater to young drivers.
The program focuses on several driving-related cognitive skills. One is perceptual skill, which deals with the issue of estimation, Breznitz says. The ability to estimate distance, speed and time are important for a driver’s safety behind the wheels and these are achieved by developing the perceptual skills.
“Our software gives the brain the opportunity to practice estimations in the safety of their home by sitting next to the computer and not always being exposed to the risk of the road,” he says.
Divided and shifting attention is another area that’s developed through cognitive training. This type of skill relates to a driver’s ability to shift focus from one issue to the next with great degree of effectiveness.
The software also covers other areas of the brain’s cognitive abilities including meta-cognition, or the ability to effectively evaluate one’s own skills and plays a major role in a driver’s decision-making process.
CogniFit’s training program is a web-based application, where users are given a user name and password to access the application and start their training. The process involves an initial assessment to determine the level of a driver’s cognitive abilities related to driving safely. The student is given a score on each cognitive ability, which in turn is used to prepare a custom training program based on the student’s strengths and weaknesses.
“So if you have thousands of users, there would hardly be two people after one or two sessions that will be doing exactly the same thing. So it’s very individualized and everybody really does his or her own training,” explains Breznitz.
The full training cycle runs for about eight weeks, divided into three 20-minute sessions each week. At the end of the training cycle, the student goes through a second assessment, which is supposed to provide an indication of the student’s progress and to what extent each of her cognitive skills were enhanced.
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Published in Training Stories