04/04/2008 10:58 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Can Videogames Make You a Better Driver?

A few weeks ago, in my post on Why Do You Turn Down the Radio When You're Lost, we discussed some of the mental skills required for driving-and why multitasking behind the wheel is a bad idea.

Now, the $1 Million Question is, "Can training help one multitask, and drive, better?". Specifically, can some video games do so?.

The New York Times just published this article: "Are You a Good Driver? Here's How to Find Out". A few quotes:

- "COULD a video game make you a better driver? More important, could computer software prevent teenagers from making fatal mistakes or even weed out older drivers whose debilities make them crash-prone?"

- "There are already programs like AAA's Roadwise Review (about $15), which is intended to help older people evaluate their driving."

- "There are other programs that will test mental agility and then use subsequent computer training sessions to improve a driver's skills. One such program is an online application called DriveFit ($89), which was developed by CogniFit, an Israeli company specializing in cognitive training software. DriveFit uses visual and memory tests to measure 12 driving-related cognitive abilities."

A question we often get when talking with insurance companies about our just released Brain Fitness Market Report, "So, can we really train drivers to act smarter behind the wheel"? Well, it depends of what "smarter" means (we are not aware of brain training programs to make drivers avoid alcohol, or sleep-inducing medicaments, before driving), but there is growing evidence that specific cognitive skills that are important for driving can, indeed, be trained, resulting in better driving outcomes.

A key research reference: the published studies by Dr. Karlene Ball and Dr. Jerri Edwards. We had the fortune to interview Dr. Edwards recently, and this is what she had to say when I asked her to explain the results of their 2003 Human Factors paper (Roenker, D., Cissell, G., Ball, K., Wadley, V., & Edwards, J. (2003). Speed of processing and driving simulator training result in improved driving performance. Human Factors, 45: 218-233):

"- Our goal was to train what is called the "useful field of view." The useful field of view is a measure of processing speed and visual attention that is critical for driving performance, and one of the areas that declines with age. It has previously been shown that this skill can be improved with training, so we wanted to see what effect it would have on the driving performance of older adults, and whether the training would be more or less effective than a traditional driving simulation course.

- For the study, we divided forty-eight adults over fifty-five years old into two intervention groups of twenty-four people each. Each group received twenty hours of training. One group was exposed to a traditional driving simulator, where they learned specific driving behaviours. The other one went through the cognitive training program.

- Both groups' driving performance improved right after their respective programs, but most benefits of the driving simulator disappeared by month eighteen.

- The speed-of-processing intervention helped participants not only improve "useful field of view," the skill that was directly trained, but it also transferred into real-life driving, and the results were sustained after 18 months. And, by the way, the evaluation was as real as one can imagine: a 14-mile open road evaluation.

- Faster speed-of-processing seemed to enable adults to react better to unexpected events that require a fast response and to reduce by 40% the number of dangerous manoeuvres on real roads (defined as those that required the training instructor to intervene during the evaluation)."

You can read the whole interview by clicking on Improving Driving Skills and Brain Functioning- Interview with ACTIVE's Jerri Edwards.

Note: the program used in that study, called Visual Awareness, was recently acquired by Posit Science Corporation.

In short, more likely than not, we can reply YES to the question used to open the New York Times article. A well-designed video game CAN make one a better driver.

Of course, this is an emerging field, and much more research needs to be done before applications become mainstream, but the field certainly deserves more attention, research dollars, and engagement by insurance companies to design and conduct real-world trials.

Allstate: what about spending just a fraction of your scary ad campaign budget in exploring additional potential solutions?