2011 · FEATURES
To swerve and protect: Driving simulator lets CAVS study distracted driving affects on law enforcement
by Susan Lassetter on December 04, 2011
When it comes to safe driving habits, everyone knows what to do—leave the radio dial alone, put the cell phone down, and keep both hands on the wheel. In short, don’t be a distracted driver.
But what if your job demanded split attention while on the road? What if public safety depended on your ability to gather information—from a radio, phone or computer screen—while maneuvering a 3,000-pound vehicle through crowded city streets?
It’s a problem that law enforcement officers must face every day, and recent driving statistics show that the men and women in blue haven’t yet found a good solution.
“There’s been a trend of law enforcement officers being involved in more traffic accidents,” explained Teena Garrison, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems (CAVS). “One possible explanation for this is the distractions caused by the new technology in police vehicles.”
Carrick Williams added, “They can’t eliminate the communication channels because they are necessary for the job. With our project, we hope to identify ways to help officers stay safe during patrol.”
With a grant from the National Institute of Justice, Garrison and Williams are using the CAVS driving simulator to evaluate officers’ driving performance in various on-duty scenarios.
“We want to see how the officers perform under normal circumstances and then monitor how that changes when they are responding to dispatch calls or if issues arise in the simulated environment,” Garrison explained. “We will also test how communication effects their performance by seeing how they respond to calls when the information is available on screen versus having to retain it in memory.”
The driving simulator is a room-sized installation that includes three forward and one rear screen, as well as integrated side and rear-view mirrors in order to give participants the same visual experience they would get in the real world. The Nissan-donated Maxima car body rests on a motion-base that imitates the feel of a moving car including roll, pitch and yaw.
For the law enforcement study, a mobile data terminal has been added to the vehicle. It includes the technology found in many modern police cars such as a police communication radio and in-vehicle laptop computer. The researchers use these tools to imitate the daily distractions that are present for on-duty patrol officers.
Eye-tracking software allows the researchers to monitor where participants are looking as they drive, while a floorboard camera records how quickly they react to stimuli by releasing the accelerator or pressing the brake. One click of a mouse collects all of this data in real time so researchers can determine which stimuli resulted in a reaction and what might have not been seen at all.
Garrison says the simulator offers a safer way to evaluate driver performance as compared to real-world road-test.
“When you wreck an actual car, there’s a lot more at stake than just a bruised ego. Not only could people be hurt, but it also costs money to continually replace the car,” Garrison explained. “When someone wrecks the simulator, we have a good laugh, then reset and go on our merry way. You just can’t do that with road tests.”
The researchers have the ability to project any environment into the simulator. For the police officer test, they use a city scenario: a four-lane road, with traffic lights and other cars. Other environments available to researchers at CAVS include a desert, for military applications, and a simulated highway. Any driving situation can be replicated in the simulator as long as it is designed for man-in-the-loop interaction.
“Video games are scripted, so if you don’t want someone to do something, you simply don’t put it in the storyline, but if you do that in a research situation, you are potentially taking away a person’s option; making it less realistic,” Garrison said.
It is also important that the simulations not break down because a person does something unexpected during a test. She explained that man-in-the-loop means that human action directly affects what happens in the simulation and whether it is a desired action or not, it’s important data to collect.
“This is an engineering center, so in everything we do the question comes back to, what does this mean for engineering,” Garrison said. “We’ve got to understand how humans interact with an environment so that we can create better products and build better systems to be safe and effective in the real world.”