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The Cognitive Brain and Driving Skills: A Comprehensive Analysis

?Driving a car is one of the most cognitively complex tasks we engage in on a daily basis. It requires an assortment of cognitive skills, including executive functioning, information processing, visual processing, and memory. In this article, we delve into the cognitive skills involved in driving, their impact on safety, and how cognitive disabilities and aging can affect driving ability. Additionally, we will explore the relationship between cognitive function and distracted driving, as well as the potential benefits of driving on cognitive health.Cognitive Skills Essential for Safe Driving

Cognitive skills are crucial for safely operating a motor vehicle because they directly relate to a driver’s ability to make informed decisions. Our brains use cognitive skills to think, learn, read, remember, reason, and focus. Effectively processing new information and retaining previous knowledge allows drivers to plan ahead and foresee potential problems before they occur. Some of the key cognitive skills involved in driving include:

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning refers to the set of cognitive processes that enable individuals to plan, organize, and manage their behavior. In the context of driving, executive functioning allows drivers to make quick decisions, prioritize tasks, and adapt to changing situations on the road.

Information Processing

Information processing is the ability to take in, understand, and respond to information from the environment. While driving, this skill helps drivers to process and react to road signs, traffic signals, and the actions of other drivers and pedestrians.

Visual Processing

Visual processing is the ability to interpret and make sense of visual information, such as recognizing and tracking objects in the visual field. In driving, visual processing is essential for accurately estimating distances, speeds, and time perception, as well as for maneuvering the vehicle in response to changing road conditions.


Memory plays a crucial role in driving as it allows drivers to recall and apply previously learned information, such as traffic rules and the layout of familiar routes. Additionally, memory helps drivers to recognize and anticipate potential hazards based on past experiences.

Cognitive Disabilities and Driving

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 16 million people in the United States are living with cognitive disabilities. These disabilities can be present from birth or acquired at any point in a person’s life. Cognitive disabilities can result from various factors, such as age, inexperience, substance abuse, or traumatic brain injury. A driver’s inability to accurately estimate distances, speeds, or time perception can be a consequence of cognitive impairment. Furthermore, impairments in cognitive ability can negatively impact driving safety.

Causes of Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities can arise from several factors, including:

  • Traumatic brain injuries resulting from catastrophic events like car accidents, which can cause temporary or permanent changes in cognitive abilities.
  • Substance abuse, which temporarily impairs judgment, reaction time, and other cognitive driving skills.
  • Medical issues, such as bacteria, viruses, and diseases that lead to conditions like meningitis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and AIDS, which can cause cognitive dysfunction.
  • Aging, as cognitive skills tend to decline as we grow older, affecting driving ability.

Cognitive Function and Distracted Driving

Distracted driving is already a significant issue among the general population. While all cognitive skills are necessary for safely operating a motor vehicle, drivers often attempt to drive while distracted. When the cognitive brain is occupied with distractions, such as phones, radios, or passengers, it takes away focus from driving. It is virtually impossible to perform multiple tasks perfectly simultaneously. For those with cognitive disabilities, it becomes even more critical to eliminate distractions and concentrate fully on driving.

The Impact of Aging on Cognitive Skills and Driving

As we age, cognitive skills tend to decline, making driving more difficult and dangerous over time. However, recent research suggests that the cognitive demands of driving may actually help reduce declines in cognition caused by aging. Additionally, driving (or at least easy mobility) may play a role in keeping seniors healthy, active, and socially engaged.

Driving Cessation and Cognitive Decline

A recent epidemiological study conducted by behavioral scientists Moon Choi, Matthew C. Lohman, and Brian Mezuk concluded that driving cessation might be positively linked to maintaining cognitive function. Their findings suggest that driving cessation itself may be a risk factor for accelerated cognitive decline over time.

Cognitive Training and Driving Mobility

In an intervention study, psychological scientists led by Jerri Edwards designed a cognitive training program targeting seniors at risk for cognitive decline and car accidents. The study found that at-risk older drivers who received cognitive processing training maintained their driving rates and experienced fewer self-reported declines in driving difficulty and frequency. This suggests that scientifically proven cognitive training regimens have the potential to enhance older adults’ everyday lives and protect against mobility declines.

Assessing Cognitive Fitness for Driving in Alzheimer’s Patients

For patients with Alzheimer’s disease, determining fitness to drive can be a challenging task for clinicians, especially for those in the early stages of the disease. Standard driving tests provided by U.S. states are helpful but cannot entirely answer questions of driving ability due to their limitations. In a meta-analysis conducted by Mark Reger and his colleagues, they found a significant correlation between cognitive indicators and driving skill, particularly in the area of visuospatial skills. Neuropsychological evaluations can serve as an additional resource for patients and families concerned about driving ability.

The Role of Cognitive Tests in Assessing Driving Fitness

Cognitive tests can help to separate safe drivers from unsafe ones, particularly in the area of visuospatial skills. Reger and his colleagues’ meta-analysis of 27 studies involving 132 cognitive tests linked to driving ability found significant correlations between the cognitive indicators and driving skill. Visuospatial skills, attention and concentration, executive functions, general cognition, and memory were all significantly related to driving skill. This evidence suggests that cognitive testing can be a valuable tool for clinicians in determining driving fitness.

The Importance of Cognitive Skills in Driver Education

Given the crucial role cognitive skills play in driving safety, it is essential to incorporate cognitive skills training into driver education. This can help new drivers develop the necessary cognitive abilities to make informed decisions and react appropriately to various driving situations.

Monitoring Cognitive Skills in Aging Drivers

With the population of U.S. citizens aging, it is essential to watch for signs of failing cognitive skills. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) can assess and make recommendations for aging drivers. Regular cognitive assessments and targeted interventions can help maintain driving ability, cognitive function, and overall well-being in older adults.


Cognitive skills play a vital role in driving safety, and understanding their impact on driving ability is crucial for ensuring the well-being of drivers, passengers, and other road users. As cognitive abilities can be affected by various factors, including age, cognitive disabilities, and distractions, it is essential to address these issues and promote safe driving practices. By incorporating cognitive skills training into driver education, monitoring cognitive health in aging drivers, and using cognitive tests to assess driving fitness, we can contribute to safer roads for everyone.


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