Toronto research centre to study effects of opioids on drivers

By Amanda Ferguson

Getting into Toronto Rehab‘s brand new $4-million, state-of-the-art driving simulator will be anything but a smooth ride for participants.

In fact, Dr. Geoff Fernie looks to make it that way.

The Toronto Rehabilitation Institute says the DriverLab is the most advanced driving simulator in Canada. A team of researchers will now use the spaceship-like device to study everything from the effect of opioids on motorists to how to stop drivers from falling asleep at the wheel and ways to curb distracted driving.

“What’s special about it is that other simulators in the world are designed to help improve the design of cars,” Fernie said. “We’re worried about drivers.”

Fernie said DriverLab was specifically designed to find ways to keep seniors safely behind the wheel longer and help people get driving again after illness or injury.

“We can’t really design drivers, but we can study what might go wrong in the driving experience,” Fernie said.

The simulator uses a 360-degree projector system, a large hydraulic motion platform and includes a weather simulator that produces real rain droplets on the windshield and a glare simulator for night driving.

Dr. Andrea Furlan, a chronic pain physician at Toronto Rehab, is most excited to use DriverLab to study the effects of pain medication on drivers, an area currently lacking in evidence, she says.

“We don’t know if the pain affects their driving ability,” she said. “But these painkillers, especially opioids, they can affect your ability to concentrate. They can make the person sleepy.”

Furlan said she is now recruiting patients currently on prescription painkillers and hopes to have the results of her study in two or three years.

Last year, one in seven Canadian got a prescription for opioids.

“It’s a lot of people getting these medications,” she said. “I hope to find out if it’s safe for physicians to continue prescribing, if we should be telling other things to patients.”

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