Perhaps there is nobody better to take the wheel of this particular research project than Health Sciences professor Sherrilene Classen.
“This is the sort of work that makes me jump out of bed in the morning because I know we can prevent another death or severe injury,” said the Director of Western’s School of Occupational Therapy. “I grew up in South Africa and so, for me, this is like giving back to my country in such a cool way. It brings meaning and purpose to a greater level of significance for me. It’s about capacity building; it’s about recognizing the need; it’s about putting the supports in place to eventually make a difference.”
Classen has explored driving safety for more than a decade in the United States and Canada. Through a battery of clinical tests she developed, the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow is able to determine people’s fitness to drive through working memory.
“Our whole objective is to keep people on the road as long and as safe as possible,” she said. “There is a convincing body of knowledge showing if folks need to stop driving, or can’t continue to drive, that it’s associated with depression, isolation and a reduction in the quality of life.”
Now, Classen is partnering with Stellenbosh University in South Africa to combat the astronomical number of motor vehicle fatalities plaguing that country. A mixture of behavioural factors – from drinking and driving to not wearing seat belts to simple speeding – and mechanical shortcomings account for more than 13,000 road fatalities each year.
“People feel they can take anything with four wheels and an engine and drive on the road,” Classen said. “A lot of pedestrians have never even been in a car. So they have no idea what the driver needs to do in terms of breaking response.”
With graduate students from Stellenbosh, Classen looks to create a five-year strategic plan for their university to move forward with her work. Earlier this year, in South Africa, Classen hosted a driving colloquium that included occupational therapists, scientists, neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, members of South Africa’s Department of Transportation, medical doctors and persons with disabilities.
“We got all the people in the room who needed to be there. We ID’d the needs and are trying to see what the country needs. People are dying and we can make a difference,” Classen stressed.
She has been asked by the World Federation of Occupational Therapists to lead an international effort on writing a position paper outlining the organization’s stance on driving and community mobility.
Classen also has an ongoing research project at the University of Florida, where she worked prior to coming to Western three years ago. She is running a randomized control study for the U.S. Department of Defence looking at effective driving interventions for returning combat veterans.
“We are teaching people self-management strategies to realize they are getting anxious,” said Classen, adding everyday noises such as helicopters or motorcycles backfiring can trigger battlefield driving behaviours. “It was stuff they needed to do in the war zone to survive and stay alive. But when they come back to civilian life, they may still have that mentality – but it’s a different situation.
“In a war zone you are taught ‘don’t stop.’ There is not desensitization from that. They go through training to be able to realize what a combat situation is and to illicit that battlefield mindset, to evoke the alpha male ego that needs to protect and defend and do whatever is necessary to stay alive. Our job is to reverse that.”