Train brain is the route to safer driving

Driving is a hugely complex skill that requires those behind the wheel to think and act correctly under pressure. However, when drivers don’t think and act correctly under pressure, they make unsafe manoeuvres – if they make a manoeuvre at all – that can result in catastrophe. Research suggests that the vast majority of road traffic crashes – there were 163,554 road accidents reported to the police involving personal injury in 2009, according to the Department for Transport – involve human error.

There are estimated to be up to 150 road deaths and serious injuries a week resulting from crashes involving at-work drivers, and more employees are killed and seriously injured on Britain’s roads while driving on behalf of their employer than in any other work-related activity. Driving on business is therefore a dangerous occupation, but ongoing cognitive training – effectively training the brain – is proven to make drivers safer on the road.

Now Fleet Support Group has teamed up with UK-based Cognisess that will see cognitive assessment become one of the modules available through the fleet management company’s online occupational road risk management programme, RiskMaster.

As Flagship highlighted last month (June), RiskMaster v2 will be rolled out towards the end of this year and in the early part of 2012. From March next year, further RiskMaster system enhancements will be released, including cognitive assessment.

In the interim, Cognisess is working with a number of research laboratories, including TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) to further develop its programmes and will then pilot cognitive assessment with a number of FSG’s RiskMaster clients.

Delegates at the recent RiskMaster User Group Workshop were given a unique insight into cognitive skills, which are the thinking processes used by people to function and, without memory, there would be no new learning. But everyone is different and the brain is not trained to make decisions at high speed, which are frequently required when on the road.

However, experts say that cognitive skills can be trained and improved. Changes can last for two years or more and improvements are transferred to everyday abilities, including safer driving performance, according to research.

One of the most appropriate examples of cognitive skills training are licensed London taxi drivers who need to pass a special test before they can drive one of the capital’s famous black cabs. The test is called the Knowledge, with drivers learning 320 routes, landmarks and places of interest along the runs. It takes between two and four years to pass the All-London Knowledge test.

Completing the Knowledge makes a person’s brain bigger, says research by the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience. Researchers scanned the brains of 16 London taxi drivers who had spent an average of two years learning the Knowledge. They found the cabbies had a larger hippocampus – an area associated with memory – than control subjects.

Chris Butt, co-founder of Cognisess in the UK, describes the process as ‘rewiring the brain’ to:

  • Concentrate on driving for a lengthy period of time
  • See surrounding pedestrians and traffic
  • Respond to braking vehicles, traffic lights and emergencies
  • Remember directions while driving
  • Retain emotional self-control behind the wheel by avoiding unnecessary risks
  • Monitor external factors successfully such as managing stress and getting enough sleep

As a result, by completing the Cognidrive programme, people will enhance their driving performance, having initially completed an accident risk profile.

The targeted training programme takes a minimum 16-24 weeks to complete with ‘students’ completing three 30-minute online sessions a week. A mobile phone application is also being developed to enable training to be completed ‘on the move’.

Mr Butt said: “As the driver progresses, the exercise complexity evolves so that training is always challenging, engaging and effective. Over time, the individual driver’s risk profile will reduce, moving more employees into a lower risk category.

“We hope that people see cognitive assessment as not only a driving enhancement tool but as a training tool over a much longer period of time and treat it as part of their routine, just as many people go to the gym two or three times a week. Over time, performance will improve significantly.”

As well as improving the road safety of current employees, Cognisess says the initiative can be used by employers to screen potential new staff, thus helping them to avoid making expensive recruitment mistakes by identifying high risk drivers.

He added: “The benefits also include a reduced number of accidents, reduced insurance costs and a lower liability risk.”

Some occupational road risk management companies include psychometric testing within their programme, but Mr Butt distanced Cognisess from such initiatives.

He said: “There are perceived similarities to psychometric testing, but that is general questions and answers and it is about assessing someone’s behaviour through Q&A. There are some merits to that and it is better to ask the questions than not at all, but many people know how to answer such questions to obtain the desired result.

“Cognitive training is performance based so it measures real-time performance and is very different from asking questions. We measure the decision-making process – for example the speed of reaction when driving – and, over time, training will improve performance.”

Cognitive skills development was a feature of England’s rugby world cup triumph in 2003 with Mr Butt being part of a team that worked with the squad prior to the tournament.

He said: “We measured players’ cognitive skills to see how they processed information, their attention and awareness, their logical processing, flexibility and emotional intelligence. It was all designed to help the players think correctly and perform under pressure, which is what drivers have to do every day of their life.”

As reported on FSG’s website  – July 2011. For further information contact FSG or go to www.fsguk.com

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