Downloadable Program Teaches Teen Drivers to Anticipate and Avoid Hazards

Developers say the program makes novice drivers as good as experienced drivers at recognizing hazards.

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A free, downloadable computer training program may relax your clenched white knuckles during those anxious first driving lessons with your newly permitted teenager. Developers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst say the program helps inexperienced young drivers anticipate hazards that can lead to accidents.

"When kids are 16 or 17, they really don't know what to look for in the way of hazards," says Jeff Muttart, a graduate student in Amherst's Human Performance Laboratory. "They don't know where to look. In effect, they're playing a brand new video game with a 3,000-pound weapon, and it's scary to realize the consequences."

The RAPT program—for risk awareness and perception training—was developed by a team led by performance lab Director Donald Fisher. He says the RAPT program was created based on an analysis of police crash reports that indicate new drivers tend to lack three basic skills necessary to avoid crashes: hazard anticipation, attention maintenance and hazard avoidance.

Hazard anticipation has to do with knowing where to look for dangers; attention maintenance with concentrating on the road ahead, and hazard avoidance with special driving techniques such as skid control. So far, the team has focused its research on anticipating dangers.

"Based on our studies and other studies, we know novice drivers are not anticipating hazards—they are not looking at places in the road where there is a potential threat," said Fisher. On top of that, he says, attention is also a big problem. "We find that newly licensed drivers will spend much longer looking away from the road ahead than experienced drivers. Text messaging and i-Pods are two of the big culprits here."

RAPT is run on a personal computer with no special accessories. The driver operates the simulator vehicle—an actual Saturn sedan—as if it's on the road.

The road ahead is displayed on three screens, one in front and one on each side of the car. As the driver turns the wheel, brakes or accelerates, the roadway visible to the driver changes appropriately. The system also provides realistic road, wind and vehicle noises.

"We can bring novice drivers to the point where they are as good at recognizing hazards as experienced drivers by training them in the laboratory on a PC, then evaluating their performance in our simulator," says Fisher. "Not only do we test their performance in the simulator, we take them out on the road. The test results confirm that those novice drivers trained on our program anticipate hazards as well as veteran can on the scenarios that were evaluated."

The program is available free at www.ecs.umass.edu/hpl. Click on "younger drivers" to download.

The work was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Link Foundation for Simulation and Training, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the National Institutes of Health and a number of others.

—Leslie Fink, NSF

This report is provided by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, in partnership with U.S. News and World Report.