A simple three-minute maze test may accurately identify drivers who are at greater risk for getting into serious car accidents due to cognitive impairments, according to a new study sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The research team, led by psychological scientists Drs. Loren Staplin and Kenneth Gish of the consulting group TransAnalytics, LLC, note that the maze test cannot be used on its own to diagnose cognitive impairments or dementia, but they believe it is a useful tool for quick cognitive assessments of older drivers.
Prior studies have shown that performance on maze tests, in which participants are asked to trace a path through a simple maze, can reveal if a person has the visuospatial skills, planning and judgment necessary for safe driving.
The researchers predicted that early signs of dementia or other cognitive declines would affect seniors’ performance on a maze test in that they would take longer to complete the task and make more mistakes.
For the study, nearly 700 drivers over age 70 who had stopped by Motor Vehicle Administration offices in Maryland were asked if they wanted to participate in a short research study in exchange for a $25 gift certificate.
The participants were told they would take a “route planning task,” and were then instructed to trace a path through each of five mazes as quickly as possible using either their fingers or a stylus. Each participant was then given a score based on the time it took to complete each maze, the number of errors they made (i.e., times they hit a dead end in the maze), and how much time they spent planning their moves.
Eighteen months later, the researchers compared participants’ performance on the maze test to police records for crashes and serious traffic offenses, including running red lights, driving on the sidewalk, or driving on the wrong side of the road. Not surprisingly, there was a strong connection between poor maze performance and serious traffic accidents 18 months later.
Drivers who took the longest amount of time to finish both the easiest and the hardest maze (separately) had the highest risk of getting into an accident. For example, those who took over 19 seconds to complete the easiest maze were 3 -1/2 times more likely to get into an accident, according to police records.
“This does not suggest that the Maze Test is preeminent in the domain of measures that screen for cognitive impairments that predict older driver crash risk,” Staplin and colleagues write in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.
“Instead, the principal utility of the Maze Test may be as one additional crash predictor that complements other measures of cognitive decline associated with safe driving ability.”