In-car research may reveal crash causes

Brent Jennings, PE
Highway Safety Manager

Virtually every vehicular crash starts with a poor decision on the part of the driver. Very rarely does the vehicle or roadway simply disintegrate causing the crash to occur.

Sure, there are rare instances such as the documented cases of a roadway pavement buckling upward or a highway bridge collapsing, but these are very rare events that are attributed solely to a vehicle crash that causes death and serious injury. Many safety features, such as roadway (guardrail), vehicular (seat belts and air bags), and improved emergency response come into play after the crash event starts; and these features aid to increase the chances of survival once the crash unfolds and comes to a conclusion.

There has been a ton of research to investigate what happens to the human body during a crash, and the benefit of this research has helped create life-saving innovations such as better seat belt design, air bags, and reinforced passenger compartments.

While this research has aided in the reduction of fatalities and serious injuries, it has not contributed to the reduction of crash numbers. If researchers could actually observe the driver’s behavior moments before a crash event, or observe the behavior and action taken moments before a near miss where a collision is successfully avoided it would help stop collisions before they happen.

In just the last few years, technology has allowed cameras and data recording systems to become small and inexpensive enough to make an unobtrusive recording of driver behavior a reality. As a result, a national research project is indeed under way to observe driver behavior moments before a crash or near miss type of event.

To date approximately 3,000 volunteer drivers of both genders and various ages in six regions around the United States are participating.

Data from strategically placed cameras and data recorders documents the driver and vehicle operation every moment the engine is running for up to 24 months. A record of speed, acceleration and conditions as depicted by video will be able to give insight into what the driver is doing, where they are looking, how long was their attention diverted and what was the cause of the diversion.

When this project is completed a vast database will be available for research analysis to continue. For example, this information will aid in investigating why there are so many run-off-the-road crashes. Data from this study should tell researchers the possible role of drowsiness, distraction, speeding and other factors associated with this type of crash.

At this time, it is hard to ultimately predict where the accumulation of this data will take highway safety, but the overall goal is to study driver behavior in a naturalistic environment in the hope that greater awareness of driver behavior becomes known so potential correction of these behaviors can be addressed. The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of crashes caused by poor driver behaviors and decisions.

It is a privilege for the Idaho Transportation Department to be a member of the oversight committee for this project, and it will be exciting to see this research unfold in the next couple of years as we join the rest of the nation in moving Toward Zero Deaths.

Published 8-03-2012