The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App

Brain Training for Older Drivers Could Mean Insurance Discounts

Last Updated Dec 2, 2010 1:35 PM EST

Once you reach your 70s, your reaction time has slowed dramatically enough that dangerous driving situations become a lot more dangerous. The rate of fatal crashes increases for drivers who pass 75, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And that reality tends to boost your insurance rate. But a just-released study shows that specific computerized brain training cut accidents in half for the seniors who took the course. Limited pilot programs that could expand in the future now offer insurance discounts to those who can pass such tests.

The training results in expanding the field of view -- especially to either side -- where a driver can recognize and process information and then react. Tom Warden, assistant vice president of the Allstate Research and Planning Center, says that participants in an Allstate pilot program typically regain field of view abilities as if they were eight to 10 years younger. "We had one customer whose car was nearly T-boned by a pickup that ran through a light, but he was able to stop. He said he might not have seen the pickup before the training," says Warden.

The study, involving academics from six universities and published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society tracked 908 drivers averaging 73 years old who drove more than 25 million miles collectively during the study. One-third of those in the test got the computerized brain training, one-third received a different kind of memory training and a one-third control group received no training. The group that got the brain training recorded only half as many accidents where they were at fault as each of the other two groups.

Allstate's pilot program is in Pennsylvania. Participants did 10 hours of training at home, monitored by the training software company. Allstate provided the software free and is still considering how and whether to provide discounts to drivers who complete the course. The biggest auto insurer, State Farm (Allstate is No. 2) has a slightly different pilot plan in Alabama -- home state of the developer of the training, Dr. Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Customers over 75 -- whether or not they have had the training -- can take a related test. If they pass, they get a discounted rate when they normally would be facing higher premiums. (Those who do not pass the test are not penalized. They pay the same rates as they would have otherwise).

Traditionally, older drivers can get discounts on insurance after taking classroom courses in defensive driving sponsored by AARP and others. But a spokesman for State Farm says the company gives discounts for these courses only where state law requires it. Claim records show no reduction in accidents after taking such courses, he says.

The insurance companies say they do not yet know when -- or whether -- they will offer wider discounts tied to the computerized brain training. But Eric Madia, an executive at Esurance.com, says that in the past, solid research, even when it was small in scale, has led to discounts for specific training -- as in programs now in force for teenagers. (See Affordable Auto Insurance: Get Those Discounts).

Even if you cannot get an insurance discount yet, you can use the training to become a safer driver. Steven Aldrich, the CEO of Posit Science -- the company that now owns and sells the training software -- says it can help hone the skills of any driver over 50. You can buy its Drive Sharp program online for $89. The training is endorsed by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. If you are an AAA member, you may be able to get a discounted price on the program if your local auto club is participating. To get a taste of what the training is like -- seeing and remembering the shapes of vehicles and their positioning on the periphery of the screen -- take the brief risk evaluation test at the AAA site.

As Baby Boomers age, one in five drivers will be over 65 within the next 15 years. If you are one of them, keeping up your driving skills and thus your ability to get around could be crucial to an enjoyable older age.

Illustration courtesy of Posit Science

More from MoneyWatch:
  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.