Drive to the conditions

Waikato University is leading innovative research which aims to make roads safer.

School of Psychology Associate Professor Robert Isler and Dr Nicola Starkey of the Traffic and Road Safety (TARS) Research Group head a project which uses high-definition video to simulate road hazards in a range of conditions.

When complete, researchers will have tested and worked with 96 drivers with vastly different levels of driving experience.

Dr Isler, an acknowledged road safety expert, said the research already indicates that driver age and experience plays a critical role in road safety and crash avoidance.

The laboratory-based research involves the use of extremely realistic video simulators and enables drivers to be tested in a range of road conditions. Future research will focus on eye movements; an area where little research has yet been undertaken.

"Road safety comes down, always, to the drivers. They are what makes a road dangerous," Dr Isler says.

We know inexperienced drivers are poor at identifying hazards because they often lack good situational awareness. They simply take longer to identify hazards, and longer to react to them.

"We know that the time it takes people to react to hazards is directly related to crashes."

The researchers found that age also plays a role in hazard identification. By the time drivers were 25, age was no longer a risk factor. By then higher-level cognitive functions like impulse control, planning ahead, emotional control and a sense of responsibility were fully developed.

An inability to perceive hazards may also impact on speeding, he says.

"Perhaps people are better at choosing the right speed when they can perceive all the hazards and that seems to come with experience."

Dr Isler says the research has a number of practical implications and was likely to inform future road safety policy as well as potentially impact on driver training programmes.

While young and largely inexperienced drivers were currently under the spotlight, it was possible that future research at the university would focus on elderly drivers, he said.

Traffic and Road Safety (TARS) Research Group