Oct 4, 2017
Put it in Park

Athletic trainers are well-accustomed to the intricacies of return-to-play decisions following concussions. But what about return to the road? Researchers at Clemson University are working to determine when it’s safe for athletes with concussions to get behind the wheel.

“The number one killer of teenagers is motor vehicle accidents,” Johnell Brooks, PhD, Associate Professor of Automotive Engineering at Clemson, told GoUpstate.com. “The number one killer of NCAA athletes is motor vehicle accidents. A lot of attention has been put on concussions, with very little work on driving after one. When you think about spells of dizziness, difficulty with light, instances of confusion, should those kids be operating a car? I think that’s one of the first priorities with me. When a child comes in with a concussion, driving is something that should be determined that day.”

To focus on this, the Clemson International Center for Automotive Research worked with Utah-based DriveSafety to develop a driving simulator for a clinical setting. It gauges reaction times for a variety of scenarios, along with measuring foot brake and steering wheel reaction.

“We absolutely know that reaction time is affected,” said John Lucas, MD, who runs the Spartanburg Regional Sports Medicine Institute in Spartanburg, S.C., and is researcher for the study. “There’s a whole lot of reaction time, frontal cortex stuff that goes into driving. Drivers have to plan and strategize. If those things aren’t clicking, the question becomes should people be driving after a concussion? I think what we’ll likely find is that some are [okay], and some absolutely should not be. That’s the whole point of the research. We don’t know right now. Down the road, our future goals will be to identify those who shouldn’t be driving and determine when it’s safe for them to return.”

So far, the researchers have conducted a baseline study using the driving simulator with students from a nearby high school. Another study is planned with a different high school later in the year.

“The aim of the study is to take a non-concussed cohort of patients and see how they do,” said Dr. Lucas. “That data has been very homogenous. Most people do pretty well. They have quick reaction times, they’re pretty good drivers. Because that data is not scattered about, because we can see people are doing about the same from the pilot data, the goal is to put people who have experienced a concussion through it and see if there are differences.”

Molly-Grayson Lawson, a local high school athlete who has experienced a concussion, has gotten to spend time with the simulator. She found it to be more difficult than expected.

“Throughout the whole thing, I felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me,” she said. “I couldn’t tell if what I was seeing was really on the screen. My vision was blurry. There are arrows that tell you when and how to turn the wheels, I thought I was doing good, and my times came up delayed. I didn’t do well at all.”

“I’d never experienced a concussion before,” Lawson continued. “I didn’t know the side effects, the repercussions, how dangerous things could be. I don’t think I’d have known how bad it was if I was driving on my own. I wish others who have concussions could have the same experience and could know how serious it can actually be. It made me understand a lot more.”

Image by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tucker M. Yates

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