If you worry about those wild teen drivers on the road, you may have good reasons for your concern: car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens 16 to 19. But U of G psychology professor Lana Trick is working with a network of other researchers to find ways to reduce those risks.
Trick is principal investigator on this project, funded by AUTO21 Teen and Novice Driver Network, a Government of Canada Networks of Centres of Excellence program. It’s called the Convergent Evidence from Naturalistic, Simulation and Epidemiology Data (CENSED) Network. As the name suggests, researchers in the network are using various approaches to study the problem.
For Trick, studies will be conducted in the driving simulation lab on campus (the University of Gueph DRIVE lab). The driving simulator consists of a stationary car surrounded by screens giving drivers the feeling that they are driving down a busy street, surrounded by cars and trucks, cyclists and pedestrians.
There are many different types of distraction that put drivers at risk: cellphones, text messaging, onboard computers and infotainment systems. However, for some drivers, one of the biggest hazards is the person sitting beside them in the car. “We know that having another young person in the car with a young driver increases the risk of collision,” says Trick. “An older person such as a parent as a passenger reduces risk. Risks are highest when both the driver and the passenger are young males.”
Why are young male drivers especially at risk when in the presence of other young males? It may have to do with the nature of the relationship. She’s studying whether or not the relationship between the young driver and the other person in the car makes a difference. “Is it different if the person is a good friend or a stranger?” she asks. “What if we try to engage a co-operative relationship between the two people in the car by having them play a co-operative game before they start driving?” She’ll compare that outcome to situations where the driver and passenger engage in a competitive activity before driving.
She’s also looking at another high-risk group, drivers with attention deficit disorder, and investigating whether their medications can help improve their driving.
Others in the network, which includes researchers from several disciplines, including medicine, engineering and psychology, will be analyzing databases of car accident information to determine the effects of alcohol and other drugs, whether graduated licence programs have been helpful, and whether laws prohibiting cellphone use while driving are making a difference.
Other network members are studying data based on videotaping devices installed in cars. The data-collecting cars were given to study participants and, inevitably, some were involved in collisions. “This study has so much data that they will be analyzing it for years,” says Trick. “They can tell exactly where a person was looking or what he or she was doing right before the collision.”
One of Trick’s students is looking at another aspect often involved in collisions. “Young drivers tend to tailgate,” says Trick. “Part of it is that they don’t really know how to assess safe distances.” She explains that some automated devices use sounds such as a warning buzzer to tell drivers when they are following too close, but there are problems with that approach. Some people simply turn these devices off. As well, some young drivers seem to like “living on the edge,” and they will deliberately follow too close because they enjoy setting off the warning buzzer.
“My student is trying an approach based on video games, where you get rewarded for accomplishing things,” Trick says. “With this approach, you’ll get moment to moment information about whether you are at a safe distance, and you get a reward – eventually building a virtual tower – if you stay back for a period of time.” They will be testing this approach to see if it is effective.
That’s not her only current project: she is also the sole investigator on a five-year Discovery grant to look at multiple object tracking – the ability to keep track of the positions of multiple moving items at once. “You can see that’s related to the driving research,” she says. “Multiple object tracking is what you do when you make a left turn and keep track of the locations of other cars, cyclists and pedestrians, all moving at different speeds, all at once.”
Her grant is focused on studying older people, who are typically less able to track multiple objects than when they were younger. “This could possibly be a predictor of increased risk of collision,” she says. To try one of her tests, visit http://www.psychology.uoguelph.ca/faculty/trick/ResearchLanaCSS.html. (It’s harder than you might think!) You can also try the test for subitizing, a related skill.
Subitizing? As Trick explains, when we look at a group of objects and the number is small (below five), we can often tell just by looking how many there are. We just “know” – no counting is needed. That’s called subitizing. When there are more items, we have to count them, either one by one or by grouping them and adding up the numbers in each group (“three over here, four over there – that’s seven”). “Both subitizing and multiple object tracking give us clues as to how the brain deals with complex visual environments – how the brain builds up a picture of a complex dynamic visual world.”
With increasing age, the visual system develops and changes. Some things change and some things stay the same. According to Trick, older people may become slower at counting but their ability to subitize is generally not affected – that is, unless Alzheimer’s disease is present, and even those with Alzheimer’s retain the ability to use the subitizing process when they are reading the number of dots on dice. Older adults may have more difficulty when there are distractions such as when they are asked how many red circles there are when green and yellow circles are also present.
Pulling together this information from many different sources will, Trick hopes, give us some ideas about how we can make the roads a little safer for all of us.