BOZEMAN - A study by Montana State University's Western Transportation Institute is focusing on the use of simulator technology to better train young drivers, who are more likely to die in an automobile crash than by any other means.
MSU researchers in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering are comparing the responses of young drivers in WTI's driving simulator with their reactions in an on-the-road vehicle. In both cases research will rely on the use of instruments to record the drivers' eye movements and physiological responses to gauge and compare reactions to potential driving hazards.
"We hope this project will save the lives of teen drivers by improving the tools we use to train them to perceive hazards," said Laura Stanley, assistant professor with MSU's Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and the principal investigator for the study.
The research is being funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, as well as another $500,000 from the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust.
After months of preliminary tests and setup work - which included commissioning and calibrating two instrument-equipped vehicles and checking equipment with a dozen or so young drivers - the team is now nearly ready for the data collection phase. For that, WTI will employ a group of drivers in their teens.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics on fatal and serious accidents for this demographic paint a stark picture: Per mile driven, teenagers - ages 16 to 19 - are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal car accident than other age groups; they are more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash than by any other means; and although they represent just 12 percent of the population, they account for 30 percent of all serious crashes.
The scenarios that lead to all that trouble for teen drivers - distracting peers in the passenger seats, cellular phones, music or just a general lack of focus - also are well known.
Stanley said there's another factor present for most serious crashes involving young drivers - their inexperience often leads to a failure to anticipate hazards.
"Older drivers are better at recognizing the potential for that kid or dog that might run out in front of them," Stanley said.
So, MSU's hazard perception study is aimed at determining how well virtual reality driving simulators can serve to train inexperienced drivers to recognize potential hazards.
Jessica Mueller, the doctoral student who is primarily in charge of coordinating the simulator side of the research, said so far the preliminary data shows promise.
Drivers were given turns in both the instrumented vehicle, a Chevy Impala sedan, and in the simulator, which uses hydraulics to represent a vehicle's movements. With instruments tracking eye movements and monitoring their heart and breathing rates, they were presented with the potential hazard of a partially obscured crosswalk - one real and one virtual.
"We weren't able to detect any differences in response in the two different environments," Mueller said. "Which supports the idea that a simulator can provide a realistic enough environment that it provokes the same responses in heart rate or breathing rate as driving on real roads in a hazard detection situation."
The final phase of the study will focus on data collected as up to 90 drivers take part in driving a short route through Bozeman's streets, as well as a virtual route in the simulator.
"In the instrumented vehicle, it's basically just a drive around town," said Lenore Page, the doctoral student who is coordinating the work around the instrumented vehicles. "There's nothing special about it in that regard."
Page said the hazard perception team is recruiting participants who are 16 and 17 years old through local advertisements. The study may include as many as 90 young drivers.
Including Page and Mueller, Stanley's hazard perception research is engaging four master's students and two undergraduates. "It's worth noting that a majority of the team is women, which are an underrepresented population in engineering field," Stanley added.
Kaysha Young, a senior in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, has been focusing on eye-tracking and other bio-feedback technology for the hazard perception project. Young will return next fall to pursue a master's degree through a three-year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.
"It's been a great opportunity to work on research at this level as an undergrad," Young said.
Stanley said WTI is a major asset to MSU because it is producing critical applied research in the human factors field of transportation. She added that it also helps in recruiting top students to MSU.
Stanley said between the instrumented vehicles - MSU now has one sedan and one pickup truck - and a simulator that can accurately mimic the feel of those vehicles, MSU and WTI are on the leading edge of studying the use of virtual reality to train drivers.
"I think it's a really huge deal to have this kind of state-of-the-art equipment in our lab here in Bozeman," Stanley said. "And best of all with this research for the National Science Foundation we are hoping we will be able to put technology to work toward saving lives."
Contact: Laura Stanley, (406) 994-1399 or firstname.lastname@example.org.