PhotoNext time you're driving down a six-lane highway, glance over at the driver in the middle lane. Chances are they will have gray hair, researchers say.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK shows older adults are naturally inclined to drive in the middle of the road, leaving the younger generation to cut corners.

The scientists suggest this tendency is a built-in safety mechanism that helps seniors stay safe behind the wheel.

The findings of the study, which are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology Human Perception and Performance, have shown how older people naturally adapt when they can no longer move with the freedom they once had. Researchers hope that the work will be used to find new ways of helping patients recover lost motor skills, for example, after a stroke.

Effects of aging

Aging causes the body to respond more slowly and movements to become less precise. To see how this might affect performance behind the wheel, a team from the University of Leeds' Institute of Psychological Sciences compared the motor skills of healthy younger adults, aged between 18 and 40, with a group of over-60s.

Using a touch-screen laptop, participants were asked to trace wiggly lines of varying widths -- slowly, quickly and at their own preferred pace. They were also asked to steer along 'virtual' winding roads when sitting in a driving simulator.

The researchers found that the older adults made allowances for their age by adopting a 'middle-of-the-road' strategy in both tests. This meant they remained well inside the wiggly lines when tracing, and stayed in the middle of the road lines when driving. Younger participants, in contrast, had a greater tendency to cut corners.

"Our results suggest that this compensation strategy is a general phenomenon and not just tied to driving,” said postgraduate researcher Rachel Raw, lead author of the study. “It seems older people naturally adjust their movements to compensate for their reduced level of skill."  

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