OT researcher explores advanced technologies to enhance community mobility for at-risk drivers


By Kim McCready

The ability to drive a car, take the bus or use forms of active transportation helps connect people to their communities. And in a world where every journey begins with a choice, the importance of road safety and equitable transportation should not be overlooked.

Liliana Alvarez, a professor in the School of Occupational Therapy, is the director of the i-Mobile Driving Research Lab, where a team of researchers studies community mobility across the lifespan, focusing on at-risk drivers and addressing transportation inequities in people's daily lives.

A dual citizen of Canada and Colombia, Alvarez brings a unique perspective to her research. Growing up in Colombia, a country with its share of traffic and transportation challenges, has given her a keen appreciation of the importance of affordable and efficient transportation. In a place where a short distance can translate into hours of travel due to traffic, there's more to consider than just safety and cost – it's also about ensuring people can access essential services like work, healthcare and education.

 “We aim to eliminate barriers, whether physical, social or contextual, to help people participate in activities that hold meaning for them,” she says.

According to the World Health Organization, road traffic injuries are the eighth leading cause of death for all age groups, globally. It is also the only one that is called accidental, meaning it is preventable. Alvarez explains that Canada stands out unfavorably among high-income countries in road safety statistics, with a disproportionate representation of youth and older adults in motor vehicle collisions, demonstrating a need for understanding of the nuances and environmental factors at play in this country.

“Our research focuses on safety, equity and sustainability in transportation, addressing not only motor vehicle collisions but also broader issues related to access and participation in society," she says.

Alvarez has long been interested in the ways advanced technologies, including robotics, influence daily life. During her postdoctoral fellowship research, Alvarez’s interest in assistive technologies expanded to the relationship between technology and driving, particularly autonomous vehicles and advanced driving assistance (ADAS) systems. From there, she moved to the study of community mobility and where it aligns with transportation equity and real-world impact on individual lives.

Community mobility refers to the ability of individuals to move within their communities, encompassing various modes of transportation such as driving, public transit, walking or cycling. Transportation equity, on the other hand, emphasizes fair and just access to transportation resources and services for all members of society.

The intersection of community mobility and transportation equity lies in ensuring that everyone, regardless of age, socioeconomic status or other factors, has equal opportunities for mobility within their community. This involves addressing barriers and disparities in transportation access, advocating for inclusive policies and promoting the overall well-being of communities through equitable transportation solutions.

“Our research focuses on safety, equity and sustainability in transportation, addressing not only motor vehicle collisions but also broader issues related to access and participation in society.”

Alvarez was recently awarded a grant from the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) for a three-year project titled, “The tech-wise driver: Exploring the sustained efficacy and technology acceptance of targeted ADAS for older drivers”.

With co-investigators hailing from Western Engineering and Computer Sciences, Alvarez excited by the interdisciplinary nature of the collaboration.

“We all bring different perspectives, such as AI components, driving simulation metrics, predictive models and human-centered aspects. I'm honored that my engineering colleagues trust me to lead this team,” she says.

The interprofessional project involves identifying the long-term impact of the use of in-car automated technologies by older drivers. It also will develop an artificial intelligence (AI) based predictive system to assess drivers using information from a driving simulator. An occupational therapist who is trained as a driving evaluator currently conducts driving fitness assessments at the lab. The team will study whether the AI-produced algorithm can assist the evaluator in assessing driving performance and identifying critical events that occur during simulation. This could benefit clinicians in the field, assisting them to efficiently identify at-risk drivers.

One way that Alvarez plans to implement evidence-based interventions and disseminate her research findings, is by launching an older adult driver-led podcast, facilitating candid discussions on driving retirement and various aspects of community mobility. The goal is to have older adult drivers lead the conversations, with researchers and knowledge users joining to foster dialogue. There is also potential for crossover episodes featuring discussions between older and younger drivers sharing insights on safe decision-making.

As Alvarez shares her vision for the real-world impact of her research, articulating her measures for success simply, yet powerfully, “I think our job is well done if even one older adult is able to enter into a driving retirement decision with peace and agency, knowing that there will be ways to preserve their dignity, their autonomy and their participation in society because of our work.”

Similarly, she expresses hope that the team's research will influence young drivers, emphasizing that if a single young person makes a safer decision on the road due to encountering the team's work, their efforts will have fulfilled their purpose.