Virtual road to safety

Virtual road to safety

June 1, 2002

An elderly driver approaches an intersection. He signals and turns, but fails to see the truck speeding towards him. Before he can react, his car is broadsided. The violent impact sends metal and glass flying.

A young driver ignores the flashing lights at a level railway crossing. Thinking she still has enough time to cross the tracks before the train appears from beyond the trees, she steps on the accelerator. It's too late, she can't outrun the train.

In the real world, both these situations would have had tragic consequences for the drivers. But in this case, neither driver suffered a single scratch. That's because they were part of the virtual world at the University of Calgary Driving Simulator, a unique new laboratory that's home to Canada's most advanced driving simulation facility. The facility's goal? To better understand people's driving habits and patterns, and to see what kind of mistakes they make behind the wheel—and how to avoid them in the future.

The facility is part of the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, and under the direction of Associate Professor Jeff Caird. To help build the facility, Caird obtained $350,000 in support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, as well as support from Alberta Science and Innovation, the Centre for Transportation Engineering and Planning (C-TEP), Transport Canada and the Community Lottery Board. The establishment of the facility was both a professional and personal victory for Caird, who lost a younger brother to a tragic auto accident some years ago.

The driving simulator uses a Saturn sedan to replicate road and driving conditions. But it's not your regular "straight-off-the-lot" sedan. The car is actually a state-of-the-art test vehicle that's wired with eye- and head-movement scanners that are connected to five networked graphic stations that monitor a myriad of movements and functions. Instead of an engine, powerful computers hum under the hood. The vehicle's eye and head scanners keep track of where drivers look, what they see, and what they fail to notice. Data from the car's control pedals and steering wheel help to compose a complete picture of each driver's actions. As a result, when a virtual accident occurs, researchers can systematically make the link between cause and effect.

At the heart of the operation is sophisticated software called HyperDrive™, which can be used to program all types of roads and highways, and a variety of accident scenarios. The software's unique abilities allow researchers to more thoroughly examine the effect that age and disease have on a driver's mobility and safety—a vital area of research considering the aging population and the increasing number of elderly drivers.

But even with the right software in hand, researchers at the driving simulation facility had a bit of a challenge. Before they could conduct the research, they first had to recruit elderly drivers who were willing to participate in the experiments. University of Calgary graduate students like Chris Edwards and Jan Creaser went on the hunt—with a little help and support from the Calgary community. In particular, the Confederation Park Senior's Centre often allows the two students to roam its recreation halls in search of willing, virtual road warriors. Once they put the seniors behind the wheel, virtually anything can happen.

Although much of the driving simulation facility's work involves elderly drivers, young drivers are also under scrutiny. Despite having far quicker reflexes and keener eyesight, risk-taking teens have the greatest number of accidents per kilometre driven. As a result, Transport Canada has contracted the facility to help them devise new ways to assess drivers.

In an effort to assess both young and old drivers, one study examined how they perform at intersections when faced with a range of choices: Are there any approaching vehicles? What about pedestrians or bicyclists? Other studies with both senior and younger subjects have examined the perception of risk at level railway crossings, as well as the effect that talking on a cell phone has on driver performance. It won't come as a surprise to find out that preliminary evidence suggests that even hands-free cellular use is enough of a distraction to increase the chance of having an accident.

Researchers at the driving simulation facility are also using their hot-wired Saturn to develop the next generation of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). Night vision systems, voice-controlled navigation, and emergency alert devices are all making their way through the lab and could be making a big impact on the marketplace in the years to come. Already there are financial returns being realized as commercial partners enter into research agreements with the facility at the University of Calgary.


Every year on Canada's roads and highways, thousands of people die in car accidents, and hundreds of thousands more are injured. Beyond the human toll, Transport Canada estimates that the financial cost of traffic crashes hovers around $25 billion—per year.

It's likely that the statistics and dollar figures will climb even higher in the coming years, especially if we keep in mind the aging population and the number of seniors who could be travelling along our roads and highways on a daily basis. In the next 40 years, the number of drivers over age 65 is expected to double. With that increase comes the statistical prediction of a tripling in senior's automotive deaths and injuries. What's the best way to beat the odds and make a dent in the high figures? Experts say it all starts with research.

That's why, more than ever, the University of Calgary Driving Simulator is playing a crucial role in ensuring road safety—by exploring a host of automobile-related research objectives involving a team of multidisciplinary researchers. The team's principal objective is to improve roadway safety by better understanding the factors involved in common traffic accidents. And while they consider cause, and the effects of aging and disease, they'll also keep a keen eye on the design and evaluation of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).

These ITS devices are currently under development and have the potential to assist drivers with navigation, automatic hazard avoidance, and emergency response. Although much of the research that the University of Calgary is conducting into ITS is confidential and protected by non-disclosure agreements, researchers offer a few hints about what we can eventually expect. New navigational aids and night vision systems are being developed that bring with them the promise of safer roads and driving conditions, as well as long-term financial benefits to the university through patent-sharing agreements.


When it came time to find funding for the driving simulation facility at the University of Calgary, a group of western Canadian researchers banded together to get the job done. The group included the Perception, Aging and Cognitive Ergonomics (PACE) Research group, the umbrella organization at the university that's involved in geriatric studies.

But the co-operation doesn't end with the funding. Other researchers at the University of Calgary's computer science and civil engineering departments, and at the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Iowa actively exchange research data with the driving simulation group.

In addition, Transport Canada is keenly interested in the work being done at the facility. Several research contracts involving driver safety (for example, as it relates to the use of cell phones) have been commissioned by the Government department. In time, it's expected that new driver education and testing procedures will grow out of the research being conducted at the University of Calgary facility.