Tonawanda News

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August 25, 2011


— — Western New York motorists are buckling up for one of the most significant driving tests ever conducted, but whether we pass or fail is not what’s important.

Researchers working for the National Academy of Science will collect over the next two years observations that will ultimately contribute to improving driver safety for years to come.

The congressionally funded, $50 million study aims to collect data from drivers in six distinct locations throughout the U.S., including Erie County.

About 700 participants are now being sought here for what some call the most ambitious look ever undertaken at factors contributing to driver behavior.

Those who take part in the study agree to have cameras and other sensors installed in their cars for a period of either one or two years.

“We’re part of one of the largest safety surveys that’s ever been conducted in this nation,” Alan Blatt, director of the Center for Transportation Injury Research at a Buffalo-based research firm called CUBRC, said.

CUBRC was selected to carry data collection in this area, which was mandated as part of the federal government’s last transportation authorization bill.

“So we’re going to make history here in Western New York. The data that’s collected here and at the other sites will really drive highway safety research for the next 20 years,” he said.

The first of about 700 drivers needed for the study are already out on the roads. They’re everyday people who have agreed to install a series of cameras and sensors in their cars for collecting data.

Blatt said many more must still be recruited in Erie County, which will serve as the primary location for collecting data in this part of the country.

Participants are paid either $500 or $1,000 in exchange for having their cars fitted with the equipment, which will monitor their vehicle’s proximity to objects, record video of drivers and passengers as well as information directly from their car’s computer system.

For the most part, drivers won’t even notice the equipment is there.

All of the data will be used to develop safety strategies for the manufacture of cars, as well as the design of the nation’s roadways to help reduce the number and severity of accidents.

Many of the world’s biggest automakers are taking part, allowing researchers to access information on their vehicles’ computers, in return for use of the data in the design of future safety features.

“This is the most ambitious study to discover how (drivers) interact with traffic, how they interact with their car and infrastructure,” Blatt said. “We’re looking for all types of drivers from the very youngest to the very oldest.”

Of the roughly 700 volunteers still being sought here, he said finding the oldest and youngest drivers is proving to be the greatest challenge, given the demographics of roughly 150 drivers recruited so far putting the program’s first volunteers somewhere in the middle. Similar feedback has occurred in the study’s other locations: in Washington state, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

“The whole idea is to collect those instances in which a driver is involved in a near crash, or has to take evasive action, that data that isn’t often recorded,” he said.

A half a dozen monitors are mounted throughout participants’ vehicles, with four cameras included in an unassuming black box mounted to the right of the rear view mirror, as well as a radar proximity sensor on the front of the vehicle and a rear camera and GPS unit taking up no more than a couple of inches on the back windshield.

Blatt said there is little concern that drivers will change their habits behind the wheel in response to all the monitors.

“The whole (point) of the study is natural driving. What the psychologists have found is that after a week or so people (forget) the cameras are in their car and go about their driving,” he said. “It’s non-obtrusive. They don’t have to interact with it at all.”

CUBRC is a not-for-profit research foundation associated with SUNY that has contributed to past studies by the federal government, collecting and reporting data to the department of defense and intelligence communities.

While recruiting efforts are so far just ramping up, Senior Research Scientist John Pierowicz, who manages the effort day to day, said most of the volunteers so far have been those other than the very old or very young, with those on either end of the age spectrum motivated more so by the payment for participation. The majority of volunteers, however, express an interest in helping improve traffic safety, he said.

Requirements for participation include owning, leasing or having permission to drive a newer-model car (2005 or newer). Participants must have a drivers’ license, sign a consent form and undergo several brief tests of their dexterity, eyesight and behavioral tendencies.

“Everybody finds the program extremely interesting,” Pierowicz said. “They’d like to see the results of their data but we can’t because of the privacy agreement.”

Data collected is not punitive, Blatt said, meaning access to it is strictly limited and it is not intended to be used in any criminal prosecution or other matters captured by the vehicle’s cameras.

“There are some very serious restrictions, both technical and legal (for using the data),” Blatt said.

He said the entire project is governed by a review board charged with protecting the data, which will only be available to researchers vetted by the National Academy of Science with established procedures and intentions for analyzing the information stored on the system’s hard drive. It will then be added to servers in a hacker-proof computer enclave at Virginia Tech University.

Some of the groups in line to use the data include automaker Volvo of Sweden, the University of Minnesota, the Midwest Research Institute and Iowa State University, where researchers will specifically be looking at how drivers negotiate curves on rural roadways, Blatt said.

In the past three years, 120,000 people have been killed in auto accidents in the U.S. About 7 million have been injured and auto accidents account for the largest cause of death among those ages 4 to 33, he said.

Blatt said some of the worst accidents involve single vehicles on rural highways, and that Erie County was chosen for it’s relatively high population density including rural or semi-rural areas, as well as the existence of four distinct seasons.

The first conclusions the research should begin showing up in about a year or so, Blatt said.

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