UMass Amherst Tests Computer Program to Help Teens Learn to Drive Safely

AMHERST, Mass. - The statistics are harrowing: 6,500 young adults between the ages of 16 and 20 die annually in the United States - approximately 18 per day- as a result of motor vehicle accidents, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. A collaboration between the University of Massachusetts and the American Automobile Association (AAA) is aimed at giving young drivers the experience needed to drive safely - without actually putting them on the road.

UMass mechanical engineering professor Donald Fisher is working with the AAA Foundation and a Virginia company called InterScience America Inc., to evaluate the effectiveness of a computer program which takes student drivers through as many as 80 hazardous driving scenarios. The program was developed by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, and has been tested in approximately 200 drivers’ education classes. As they sit before their computer screens, "drivers" are confronted with the need to make decisions about potentially dangerous situations, such as a tricky merge, or a tailgater. Then the software program critiques the decisions, with comments ranging from "Good choice!" to "Do you have a death wish or something?" The computer program is aimed at teaching new drivers to be aware of their surroundings, so they can identify dangerous situations and react appropriately. "It’s called ‘searching the environment,’ and we know kids don’t do that," says John Brock, vice president of InterScience America.

Fisher’s role is to determine whether young people who have used the computer program do, in fact, become better drivers. He’s putting 20 local high school students who have used the CD-ROM in the driver’s seat in the University’s Human Performance Lab. There, a sedan sits in front of a movie screen onto which virtual highways, neighborhoods, and cityscapes are displayed. A computer analyzes the teen-agers’ driving skills. Fisher expects to have preliminary results within the next few weeks. Coincidentally, this experiment is being conducted at the same time that the Massachusetts legislature is considering ways to toughen the rules for new drivers.

"What we need to know is how those computer skills will translate to the real world," said Fisher. "Improved technology has allowed us to put young drivers into risky scenarios without endangering them, or the drivers around them. By putting students into the driving simulator, we’re taking them a step closer to reality." That’s important, says Fisher, because driving is a complex task which is often performed with many distractions, both in and outside the car. Providing new drivers with a dose of reality is essential, says Brock. "If we want better drivers on the road, a better book just isn’t going to cut it," he says.