1. Study suggests infotainment features are too distracting for drivers

    October 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Utah press release:

    Many of the infotainment features in most 2017 vehicles are so distracting they should not be enabled while a vehicle is in motion, according to a new study by University of Utah researchers.

    The study, led by psychology professor David L. Strayer, found In-Vehicle Information Systems take drivers’ attention off the road for too long to be safe.

    “This is troublesome because motorists may assume that features that are enabled when they are driving are safe and easy to use,” Strayer said. “Greater consideration should be given to what interactions should be available to the driver when the vehicle is in motion rather than to what features and functions could be available to motorists.

    “With the best intentions, we will put some technology in the car that we think will make the car safer, but people being people will use that technology in ways that we don’t anticipate,” he added.

    The U researchers conducted the study for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Other authors of the report are Joel M. Cooper, research associate professor; research associates Rachel M. Goethe, Madeleine M. McCarty and Douglas Getty; and Francesco Biondi, research assistant professor.

    The study reviewed infotainment systems in 30 different 2017 vehicles. Participants were required to engage in four types of tasks using voice, touch screen and other interactive technologies. The tasks were to make a call, send a text message, tune the radio or program navigation while driving.

    The team developed an advanced rating scale to measure which tasks were most distracting, how they affect visual, cognitive and manual demands on drivers and whether interactions were easier to perform in some vehicles than others. The scale ranged from low to very high demand; low demand is equivalent to listening to the radio, while very high demand is equivalent to balance a checkbook in your head while driving, according to AAA.

    The researchers found drivers using features such as voice-based and touch-screen technology took their hands, eyes and mind off the road for more than 24 seconds to complete tasks.

    Previous research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the risk of a crash doubles when a driver takes his or her eyes off the road for two seconds.

    In the new study, programming navigation was the most distracting task — taking drivers on average 40 seconds to complete. Text messaging was the second most distracting task; audio entertainment and calling and dialing were the easiest to perform and did not significantly differ in overall demand.

    The researchers also found surprisingly large differences between vehicles as far as workload required to operate the systems.

    “We’re putting more and more technology in the car that just does not mix with driving,” Strayer said. “We’re expecting to see more problems associated with distracted driving as more stuff is at the fingertips of the driver to distract them.”

    AAA said it hoped the new research would help automakers and system designers improve the functionality of new infotainment systems and the workload they require of drivers, which it said should not exceed a low-level of demand.

    Strayer said his team hopes the research also will be used by consumers “to help make a good decision about what vehicle and what technology in the vehicle is best for them.”


  2. Study suggests driving speed is affected by driver’s mind wandering

    October 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the North Carolina State University press release:

    Research from North Carolina State University finds that driving speed fluctuates more when a driver’s mind wanders from focusing on the act of driving — and that the outside environment influences how often a driver’s mind wanders.

    “As autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies take over some driving tasks, drivers are likely to experience increased boredom because they will have less to do, which makes it important to understand what contributes to ‘mind wandering’ for drivers, and how that affects driver performance,” says Michal Geden, a Ph.D. candidate at NC State and the lead author of a paper on the work. Mind wandering is thinking about anything other than driving.

    “This study tells us that mind wandering affects how variable the driving speed is when people drive, which has safety implications,” Geden says. “It also tells us that perceptual load affects mind wandering.”

    Perceptual load refers to the amount of information in the environment that the driver needs to process. For example, driving in a sparsely-populated desert environment offers a lower perceptual load than driving in a busy, urban area.

    For this study, researchers conducted an experiment with 40 drivers using a driving simulator. During low perceptual load conditions, drivers reported that their minds were wandering 50 percent of the time. But during high perceptual load conditions, drivers reported mind wandering only 41 percent of the time.

    And during times that drivers reported mind wandering, the researchers saw increased variability in driving speed.

    “There is a great deal of research on external distractions, such as talking on your phone while driving,” says Jing Feng, an assistant professor of psychology at NC State and corresponding author of the paper. “However, not much work has been done on allowing one’s mind to wander while driving. As technologies take over more driving tasks, we may become more likely to let our minds wander. We should know what that might mean for vehicle safety, and this study is one step in that direction.”


  3. Study suggests drivers find it harder to ignore a ringing phone than to ignore the risk

    September 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Queensland University of Technology press release:

    Drivers find it difficult to ignore a ringing phone but they do ignore the dangers, with a new QUT study revealing almost 50 per cent believe locating and answering a ringing phone is not as risky as talking and texting.

    The research undertaken by QUT’s Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety — Queensland (CARRS-Q) and published in the PLOS ONE journal has found locating a ringing phone, checking who is calling, and rejecting or answering the call, is the most frequent mobile phone task undertaken by drivers.

    Lead researcher Oscar Oviedo-Trespalacios said drivers did not believe that locating and answering a ringing phone was as risky as talking, texting or browsing.

    “The study of 484 Queensland drivers found 45 per cent admit to locating and answering a ringing phone, compared to 28 per cent who reported speaking on a handheld device.

    “Also concerning is that more drivers reported looking at a screen for more than 2 seconds or locating and answering a ringing phone, than they did talking on a handheld phone, texting or browsing.”

    Mr Oviedo-Trespalacios said when considering the risk of these different mobile phone tasks, most drivers underestimated the distracting dangers of passive phone use.

    Finding and reaching for a ringing phone is perceived by drivers as having a mid-range crash risk, however research has showed that this task is one of the most risky activities a driver can engage in,” he said.

    “This is because drivers are likely to adapt their driving behaviour when talking, texting and browsing, by reducing their speed, increasing their distance from the vehicle in front and scanning their environment more frequently.

    “On the other hand, a ringing mobile phone can occur at any time without giving time for the driver to adapt their behaviour and therefore increases the likelihood of a crash. “This mismatch in perception of risk is a major concern revealed by the study.”

    Mr Oviedo-Trespalacios said using a mobile phone while driving had been shown to increase crash risk four-fold.

    “Novice drivers are particularly at risk as they are more likely to drive while using a mobile phone.”

    Mr Oviedo-Trespalacios said other findings in the study included:

    • Despite the research, 12 per cent drivers still don’t believe talking on a handheld phone is dangerous
    • Drivers actively avoid police detection, with about 70 per cent admitting to being on the lookout for police when using their phone
    • Drivers keep their phones low and cover them to evade police detection
    • On a typical day, drivers are more likely to look at their mobile phone for more than 2 seconds, than they are to text or browse

  4. Study suggests mind wandering is common during driving

    September 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Researchers in the United States have investigated mind wandering in volunteers during a driving simulation. When prompted at random during the simulation, the volunteers reported mind wandering 70% of the time. Using electrophysiological measurements, the researchers could identify specific changes in brain patterns when the volunteers were mind wandering.

    Are you always attentive when driving? How about on the monotonous commute home after a long day’s work? It can be difficult to keep our attention sharp while driving, especially on routes that we drive daily, or when we are tired after work. However, driver inattention is a major factor in road traffic crashes and fatalities. The most obvious sources of driver distraction are external, such as phones or other mobile devices, and scientists have extensively studied the role of these distractions in road accidents.

    However, many traffic accidents occur without any obvious external distractions. Mind wandering is an understudied form of distraction, where drivers start daydreaming and shift their attention from driving to internal thoughts. To stay safe, drivers need to remain aware of other road users and respond rapidly to unexpected events, and mind wandering might reduce their ability to do so. Because drivers may not be explicitly aware that their mind is wandering, it can be difficult to quantify it.

    In a recent study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, American scientists investigated how frequent mind wandering is during a driving simulation, and whether they could find tell-tale changes in brain patterns for a wandering mind.

    The researchers asked a group of volunteers to use a driving simulator, while hooked up to an electrophysiological monitoring system, to measure electrical activity in their brains. For five days in a row, the volunteers completed two 20-minute driving simulations along a monotonous stretch of straight highway at a constant speed, to mimic a commute to and from work. Between the two “commutes,” they completed a written test to simulate the mentally draining effect of a day’s work.

    Throughout the experiment, the volunteers heard a buzzer at random intervals, and every time the buzzer sounded they used a tablet computer to indicate if their mind had been wandering right before they heard the buzzer, and if so, if they had been explicitly aware of their mind wandering or not.

    “We found that during simulated driving, people’s minds wander a lot — some upwards of 70% of the time,” says Carryl Baldwin, of George Mason University, who was involved in the study. Participants’ minds were more likely to wander on the second drive of the simulation (the drive home after work), and on average, they were aware of their mind wandering only 65% of the time.

    The scientists could also directly detect mind wandering from the volunteers’ brain activity. “We were able to detect periods of mind wandering through distinctive electrophysiological brain patterns, some of which indicated that the drivers were likely less receptive to external stimuli,” says Baldwin.

    So, what does this mean? Is mind wandering dangerous, and if so, can we stop doing it? “Mind wandering may be an essential part of human existence and unavoidable. It may be a way to restore the mind after a long day at the office,” says Baldwin. “What we are not sure about yet, is how dangerous it is during driving. We need additional research to figure this out,” she explains. “In terms of improving safety in the future, one option could be autonomous transport systems, like self-driving cars, that allow people’s minds to wander when it is safe to do so, but re-engage when they need to pay attention.”


  5. Signs of distracted driving: Pounding heart, sweaty nose

    August 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Houston press release:

    Distracted driving — texting or absent-mindedness — claims thousands of lives a year. Researchers from the University of Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute have produced an extensive dataset examining how drivers react to different types of distractions, part of an effort to devise strategies for making driving safer.

    In a paper published Aug. 15 in the journal Scientific Data, the researchers make the dataset publicly available for the first time and describe how they collected the information.

    The study was conducted with 68 volunteers, all of whom had a valid driver’s license and normal or corrected-to-normal vision, on a driving simulator. Drivers were tracked with both thermal and visual cameras, along with palm sensors, sensors to measure heart rate and breathing rate, and an eye tracking system.

    Ioannis Pavlidis, Eckhard Pfeiffer Professor and director of the Computational Physiology Lab at UH, said the study is the first to tackle three types of distracting elementssensorimotor, such as texting; cognitive, such as absorbing thoughts; and emotional distractions.

    Texting, the researchers found, led to far more dangerous driving, while a “sixth sense” appeared to protect those suffering emotional upset or absent-mindedness. Texting interfered with that sixth sense, letting drivers drift out of their traffic lanes. The researchers reported this result in the journal Scientific Reports last year, using a subset of the data they collected.

    Additional investigation showed that “eye tracking and breathing rate proved useful metrics for measuring the impact of texting while driving,” Pavlidis said. “But that wasn’t helpful in cases of emotional or cognitive distractions.” However, he said the researchers found heart rate signals captured via wearable sensors and perinasal perspiration captured via miniature thermal imagers were able to track all forms of distraction — a result that is reported in the current Scientific Data paper.

    That and other findings provide the groundwork for future safety systems, said Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Given the widespread use of smart watches capable of measuring heart rate, he said this result opens the way for universal sensing of all forms of distraction at the consequential source, that is, the driver’s sympathetic system.

    The potential market for interventions is huge. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law banning texting while driving earlier this summer, leaving just three states that have not banned the practice.

    The experiment worked like this: Volunteers drove the same segment of highway four times in a high-fidelity driving simulator — with no distraction and with cognitive, emotional and physical distraction. They were monitored via standoff and wearable sensors, which recorded perspiration, heart rate, breathing rate, gaze and facial expressions to capture the drivers’ state as they were overloaded by multitasking.

    At the same time, the simulator’s computer recorded driving performance variables including speed, acceleration, braking force, steering angle and lane position.

    In addition to Pavlidis, authors on the paper include Panagiotis Tsiamyrtzis of Athens University of Economics and Business, who spearheaded the data analysis and validation; Salah Taamneh and Ashik Khatri of UH; Malcolm Dcosta of Elizabeth City State University; Pradeep Buddharaju of University of Houston-Clear Lake; Michael Manser and Robert Wunderlich of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute; and Thomas Ferris of Texas A&M University.

    Along with the publication of the paper in Scientific Data, the researchers released the full dataset in the Open Science Framework (OSF) databank.

    This experiment represents an emerging form of multimodal design, where an abundance of highly quantitative variables are measured continuously, providing a 360-degree view of the studied conditions. Pavlidis noted that these designs are now possible because of technological advances in wearable and imaging sensors, as well as the emergence of robust computational algorithms.

    The deluge of data such multimodal experiments produce requires sophisticated curation and complete openness, he said, not only for purposes of reproducibility but also as a means to investigate the dataset’s full potential.


  6. Which bar patrons underestimate their inebriation the most?

    July 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Research Society on Alcoholism press release:

    Prior research suggests that college students, males, and people drinking alcohol at restaurants, bars, and nightclubs are at particularly high risk for driving after drinking. Breath-testing devices are not usually found at these drinking establishments, so patrons generally assess their own intoxication levels using internal (feelings of intoxication) and external (number of drinks consumed) cues. This study examined bar patrons’ self-estimates of their breath alcohol concentrations (BrACs) in natural drinking environments.

    Researchers recruited 510 study participants, on 14 nights between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., as they exited two bars located close to large universities: one in Florida (n=301) and the other in Texas (n=209). Research assistants conducted a 10-15 minute interview with each of the exiting patrons and measured their BrAC with hand-held testing devices.

    Bar patrons with the highest-measured BrACs underestimated their levels the most. Adjusting for their measured BrAC, individuals who felt more intoxicated or who reported consuming more drinks thought that their BrACs were higher. However, more than 20 percent of participants with a BrAC of at least 0.08% (the legal driving limit) thought that their BrAC was below this level. Individuals younger than 26 and those who reported feeling less drunk were more likely to make this error. Study authors called for more research to assess the association between self-estimated BrACs and driving behavior in different contexts, and to investigate how altering drinking environments could improve individuals’ ability to self-estimate their BrACs and avoid driving after drinking.


  7. Study suggests following a friend may lead to unsafe driving behavior

    July 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    A new study, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology provides scientific proof to show that drivers who follow another car to a destination are more likely to drive dangerously.

    “We have found that when someone is asked to follow another vehicle, it can lead to them engaging in risky driving behavior, such as driving faster, making more erratic turns and following too close to the car in front. This is most likely caused by a fear of getting lost,” says Robert Gray, a Professor in Human Systems Engineering, who carried out this research with his team at the Arizona State University, USA.

    He continues, “This study was actually inspired by an accident analysis I was doing for a court case, where a driver was seriously injured in a ‘following a friend’ scenario. Although most people have an intuition it can be dangerous, we couldn’t find any research to back this up.”

    Professor Gray and his colleagues decided to test this intuition by recruiting students with a valid driving licence to participate in a driving simulation. Initially, they were asked to drive wherever they wanted in the simulated city to get an idea of their basic driving behaviour. This was compared to how they drove when guided by a navigation system and also to their driving behaviour when asked to ‘follow your friend in the car in front’. As well assessing their general speed, distance to the car in front and the time it took to move lanes; hazards were presented to see if their behaviour changed under different driving scenarios.

    “We observed changes in behaviour that increased the likelihood of being involved in an accident,” reveals Professor Gray.

    When drivers were ‘following a friend’, they drove faster and more erratically, closer to the car in front and made quicker lane changes, compared to how they drove under normal conditions or with a guided navigation system. In addition, when confronted with hazards in the ‘following a friend’ simulation, the drivers were more likely to cut in front of a pedestrian crossing a road and speed through traffic lights turning red.

    “It is important to note that in our simulation, the leader and other vehicles around them did not break any laws, so the follower was not just copying the risky driving behavior they saw from someone else,” says Professor Gray.

    By using a computerized driving simulation, the study was able to eliminate the contagious effect, where driver behaviour can be influenced by the traffic around them. Drivers often feel a social pressure to keep pace with other traffic and run traffic lights when other vehicles do the same.

    Professor Gray concludes by offering some advice when a friend offers to show you the way. “If you are faced with this situation, get the address from the lead driver and use a map or navigation device so you know how to get there yourself. In the future, we plan to investigate whether some knowledge about the location of the destination can get rid of these dangerous effects.”


  8. Researchers pinpoint ‘attention disengagement’ lag as cause for impaired driving when talking on cell phone

    June 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Iowa press release:

    We all know that talking on a cell phone impedes your driving ability. But new research from the University of Iowa is helping us understand how even a simple conversation can affect your brain’s ability to focus on the roadway.

    UI researchers used computerized experiments that tracked eye movements while asking subjects to answer true or false questions. Respondents who answered the questions took about twice as long to direct their eyes to a new object on the screen than those not required to respond or who were asked no questions at all.

    The experiments mimic a scenario in which a driver is using a cell phone or having a conversation with a passenger, says Shaun Vecera, professor in the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and corresponding author on the paper, published online June 5 in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

    It’s the first study known to examine attentional disengagement as the possible cause of poor driving while using a cell phone.

    “What this study suggests is the reason you should be cautious (when talking on the phone while driving) is it slows your attention down, and we’re just not aware of it because it happens so fast,” Vecera says.

    The delay is about 40 milliseconds, or four-hundredths of a second, which may not seem like a long time. But that delay compounds: Every time the brain is distracted, the time to disengage from one action and initiate another action gets longer.

    “It’s a snowball effect,” Vecera says, “and that’s what contributes to the problem, because eventually you’re oblivious to a lot that’s around you.”

    There’s little dispute cell phone use — whether texting or talking — is hazardous for drivers. The U.S. National Highway Safety Administration reports that in 2015, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving drivers engaged in cell phone conversations, texting, and other distractions.

    That’s why a growing number of states — Iowa included — have either limited or banned some uses of a cell phone while driving.

    Research has demonstrated cell phone use reduces a driver’s field of vision, creating a cone-like field of view akin to tunnel vision. Other studies have suggested using a cell phone while driving places a mental burden, or “cognitive load,” on drivers, making them less likely to detect and react to the appearance of a new object.

    Vecera and his team wanted to explore why the brain was burdened with something as simple as having a conversation. After all, why would talking on the phone affect your ability to pay attention to the road?

    Engaging in conversation, whether on the phone or with someone in the vehicle, “seems effortless,” Vecera says. But it’s far more complex than one would think. The brain is absorbing information, overlaying what you know (and what you don’t), and then preparing to construct a thoughtful reply.

    “That’s all very effortful,” Vecera says. “We do it extremely rapidly — so rapidly we don’t grasp how difficult it really is.”

    In a study published in 2011 in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Vecera and colleagues documented that older adults with poorer mental and visual abilities took longer to switch their attention from one object to another than older adults with diminished vision only. In his current study, he hypothesized that younger, healthy individuals asked to answer questions while training their eyes on objects would mimic the older adults with cognitive decline.

    The experiment was simple enough. The participants answered a series of true or false questions, termed “active listening,” while researchers used high-speed cameras to track how rapidly their eyes located and fixed on a new object that appeared on a computer screen. Other groups either were asked a question but were not required to answer (“passive listening”) or were not asked a question.

    Among the simple questions was: “C-3P0 is the name of a tall golden robot, and he was in the popular film Star Wars.”

    Among the more difficult questions was: “The Magna Carta was written as a legal proclamation, subjecting the king to the law.”

    It took nearly 100 milliseconds, on average, for participants answering questions to disengage their vision from one object and locate and fixate their vision on a new object that appeared on the screen.

    “Active listening delays the disengagement of attention, which must occur before attention can be moved to a new object or event,” Vecera says.

    In addition, the eye movements of participants asked to answer both simple and difficult questions also lagged. Researchers believe that’s because the brain needs to be engaged when actively listening, no matter how elementary the topic of conversation.

    The solution? Don’t talk on the phone while driving, Vecera says.

    “There’s no evidence that I know of that says you can eliminate the mental distraction of cell phone use with practice or conditioning,” he says. “But that is an open question that should be studied.”

    Benjamin Lester, a UI graduate who majored in psychology and former post-doctoral research scholar at the UI, is the paper’s first author. The U.S. National Science Foundation and the Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center funded the research.


  9. Study suggests people walking to work or an errand more likely to stroll into dangerous areas

    June 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Drexel University press release:

    People taking leisurely strolls tend to choose safer walking routes than those heading to work or on an errand, a new study found.

    Led by D. Alex Quistberg, Ph.D., an assistant research professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University, the study used GPS, accelerometers and travel logs from a 2008-2009 survey in King County, Washington — which includes Seattle — to measure the path and purpose of 537 pedestrians. That data was then compared to maps on the probability of pedestrian collision risk, and the study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

    Quistberg and his team found that pedestrians on recreational walks were 8 percent less likely to be in areas where car collision risks were higher than those on utilitarian walks (walking somewhere with a purpose).

    “There’s likely a mix of things happening here,” Quistberg said. “On recreational walks, people likely want a more relaxing path than someone on a utilitarian walk.”

    The study also found that people who took longer walks, both in distance and time, were less likely to stray into dangerous areas (where car-collision risk is high). That, too, was likely tied to recreational walks vs. walks with a purpose. The study also took demographic data into account. This yielded the finding that people who lived in single-family homes, owned homes and/or owned a car all were less likely to walk in more dangerous areas.

    People who participated in the survey who had children were slightly less likely — around 2 percent — to walk in areas with high collision risk.

    “This could be due to people with children living in single-family homes, which are usually in neighborhoods that have a low risk of pedestrians collisions because of low traffic and slow speeds,” Quistberg explained. “It is also possible that people with children at home are walking more cautiously, perhaps with their children.”

    Recently, Dornsife School of Public Health Dean Ana Diez Roux, M.D., Ph.D., signed on to a letter supported by former president Jimmy Carter that appealed for protection of the walking paths of children, especially those headed to school. And although results from Quistberg’s study analyze adult pedestrians in Washington state, he believes they reveal information that could serve to improve walkability universally.

    “Improving road safety for pedestrians will support interest in walking for recreation as well as those who integrate a healthy walk into their commute,” Quistberg said.


  10. Study suggests perceptual judgment, motor skills not fully developed until age 14

    April 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Iowa press release:

    For adults, crossing the street by foot seems easy. You take stock of the traffic and calculate the time it will take to get from one side to the other without being hit.

    Yet it’s anything but simple for a child.

    New research from the University of Iowa shows children under certain ages lack the perceptual judgment and motor skills to cross a busy road consistently without putting themselves in danger. The researchers placed children from 6 to 14 years old in a realistic simulated environment and asked them to cross one lane of a busy road multiple times.

    The results: Children up to their early teenage years had difficulty consistently crossing the street safely, with accident rates as high as 8 percent with 6-year-olds. Only by age 14 did children navigate street crossing without incident, while 12-year-olds mostly compensated for inferior road-crossing motor skills by choosing bigger gaps in traffic.

    “Some people think younger children may be able to perform like adults when crossing the street,” says Jodie Plumert, professor in the UI’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “Our study shows that’s not necessarily the case on busy roads where traffic doesn’t stop.”

    For parents, that means taking extra precautions. Be aware that your child may struggle with identifying gaps in traffic large enough to cross safely. Young children also may not have developed the fine motor skills to step into the street the moment a car has passed, like adults have mastered. And, your child may allow eagerness to outweigh reason when judging the best time to cross a busy street.

    “They get the pressure of not wanting to wait combined with these less-mature abilities,” says Plumert, corresponding author on the study, which appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, published by the American Psychological Association. “And that’s what makes it a risky situation.”

    The National Center for Statistics and Analysis reported 8,000 injuries and 207 fatalities involving motor vehicles and pedestrians age 14 and younger in 2014.

    Plumert and her team wanted to understand the reasons behind the accident rates. For the study, they recruited children who were 6, 8, 10, 12, and 14 years old, as well as a control group of adults. Each participant faced a string of approaching virtual vehicles travelling 25 mph (considered a benchmark speed for a residential neighborhood) and then crossed a single lane of traffic (about nine feet wide). The time between vehicles ranged from two to five seconds. Each participant negotiated a road crossing 20 times, for about 2,000 total trips involving the age groups.

    The crossings took place in an immersive, 3-D interactive space at the Hank Virtual Environments Lab on the UI campus. The simulated environment is “very compelling,” says Elizabeth O’Neal, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences and the study’s first author. “We often had kids reach out and try to touch the cars.”

    The researchers found 6-year-olds were struck by vehicles 8 percent of the time; 8-year-olds were struck 6 percent; 10-year-olds were struck 5 percent; and 12-year-olds were struck 2 percent. Those age 14 and older had no accidents.

    Children contend with two main variables when deciding whether it’s safe to cross a street, according to the research. The first involves their perceptual ability, or how they judge the gap between a passing car and an oncoming vehicle, taking into account the oncoming car’s speed and distance from the crossing. Younger children, the study found, had more difficulty making consistently accurate perceptual decisions.

    The second variable was their motor skills: How quickly do children time their step from the curb into the street after a car just passed? Younger children were incapable of timing that first step as precisely as adults, which in effect gave them less time to cross the street before the next car arrived.

    “Most kids choose similar size gaps (between the passing car and oncoming vehicle) as adults,” O’Neal says, “but they’re not able to time their movement into traffic as well as adults can.”

    The researchers found children as young as 6 crossed the street as quickly as adults, eliminating crossing speed as a possible cause for pedestrian-vehicle collisions.

    So what’s a child to do? One recommendation is for parents to teach their children to be patient and to encourage younger ones to choose gaps that are even larger than the gaps adults would choose for themselves, O’Neal says. Also, civic planners can help by identifying places where children are likely to cross streets and make sure those intersections have a pedestrian-crossing aid.

    “If there are places where kids are highly likely to cross the road, because it’s the most efficient route to school, for example, and traffic doesn’t stop there, it would be wise to have crosswalks,” Plumert says.