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Virtual Driving Technology Offers ‘Teachable Moments’ for New Drivers

Published on
Dec 27, 2019
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Virtual driving technology

Data from a virtual driving skills assessment in place at licensing centers across Ohio allows our researchers to learn which critical skills new drivers need to prepare for serious crash scenarios.

By Jillian Rose Lim

From blind curves to left-hand turns across oncoming traffic, our roads contain multiple challenging situations that new drivers likely will not encounter during on-road exams for licensing. As a result, traditional licensing procedure do not adequately assess whether new drivers have the skills and experience to manage the most common serious crash scenarios. This fact is reflected in the research: New drivers go from their lowest lifetime risk for a crash when they’re learning to drive, to their highest lifetime risk after getting their license. 

What if there was a way to proactively assess a driver’s preparedness for handling the most common serious crash situations? What if we could identify which critical skills each driver must improve before they start driving on their own? And what if this could all be done efficiently using safe and smart virtual driving technology?

This scenario is becoming a reality at 57 license testing sites and 350 driver training schools in the state of Ohio. In November 2019, Governor Mike DeWine announced the “Ohio - Ready, Test, Drive!” program, the result of a highly novel partnership between researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia led by Flaura Winston, MD, PhD; CHOP spinout company Diagnostic Driving Inc.; and the Ohio Department of Public Safety (ODPS).

During the past decade, CHOP researchers conducted the research that led to “Ohio - Ready, Test, Drive!” They developed and validated a laboratory-based driving assessment that safely exposes drivers to common serious crash scenarios and measures skill in avoiding crashes. Diagnostic Driving then developed this technology as a commercial-grade mobile virtual driving assessment system that does not require expensive fixed-based driving simulators. 

The self-guided software, known commercially as Ready-Assess™, safely exposes drivers to common serious crash scenarios through a simulated driving route, while also measuring each individual’s dexterity in certain critical skills. The software system gained widespread national media attention this year, even securing a spot on the Today Show.

Identifying Drivers’ Critical Skill Deficits 

Enter the ODPS, which selected the technology in 2017 to use in their licensing workflow as a way to identify under-prepared new license applicants who would fail their on-road exam. Together, CHOP, Diagnostic Driving, and ODPS completed a successful 14-month pilot in five busy licensing centers and involving 20,000 new license applicants taking the virtual driving assessment before performing their scheduled on-road exam. The study team developed and validated a scoring algorithm, matching performance on the virtual driving assessment with on-road examinations: The assessment has a greater than 80 percent accuracy in predicting on-road examination results and is greater than 90 percent accurate in predicting those who will fail. 

Based on the success of the pilot, Ohio is going live across the state with the assessment system for all new license applicants. The “Ohio - Ready, Test, Drive!” program will administer the tests during required driver training for those under age 18 and also at their state license testing sites for all new license applicants, regardless of age. (Note: In Ohio, driver training is only required for those under age 18. In this way, all applicants will have the benefit of the assessment.) Customized feedback to each individual will recommend specific driving skills needing more practice.

For Dr. Winston, who is a physician at CHOP and professor of Pediatrics in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as founder and scientific director of CIRP, this approach to safer roads hinges on the concept that we must address novice driver crashes at their root.

“If you were going to try to cure a disease, you want to start by identifying and understanding the root causes of that disease,” Dr. Winston said. “If the disease that we’re talking about is fatal car crashes, or injury-producing car crashes, the root cause for novice drivers is lack of skills, and inexperience exacerbated by distraction. Now that we know the root cause, we can identify underprepared drivers and critical skill deficits. The next step is to try to fix them. I see this work as equally important to curing disease because crashes are by far the leading cause of adolescent death.”

While the program has already proven a success in pilot projects conducted in Ohio, Dr. Winston and her team will continue studying which critical skill deficits lead to serious crashes. Thanks to the steady stream of data funneled from Ohio’s licensing centers to CHOP’s ARCUS team for data management and linking, they will be able to dig deep and truly understand how to turn the period just before a driver receives their license into a “teachable moment.” 

Teachable Moments: Timing Matters in Driving Licensure

Ready-Assess™ pinpoints what Dr. Winston calls the “peri-license period” for a novice driver. Much like the perinatal period surrounding birth (before, during, and after) is a time for careful preparation and monitoring to assure the start to a healthy life, the peri-license period surrounds the critical moment of licensure, making sure new drivers start a lifetime of safe driving. Receiving a license is “time zero,” Dr. Winston said – a highly teachable moment that injury research experts and public safety authorities can take advantage of. 

So, what happens during time zero for licensure in Ohio? The workflow implemented by ODPS provides a good example for other states: Applicants scheduled for their on-road exam complete a self-directed virtual driving skills assessment spanning about 15 minutes. This comprises an orientation video, an “acclimation drive,” and a simulated driving route that incorporates common and serious crash scenarios. After a quick survey, the software provides each individual with automated feedback about their strengths and areas of improvement.  

These critical skill areas are important to highlight because they are the same deficits and errors that research has found to underlie the most common serious crash scenarios in both young and adult drivers. 

For example, in analyses using the National Motor Vehicle Causation Survey, CHOP researchers crunched the data and found in drivers 16 to 19 years old, five scenarios accounted for 37 percent of all serious young driver crashes. The contributing errors made immediately before serious crashes were identified as recognition errors (poor scanning, hazard detection, and distraction) and decision errors (following too closely, traveling too fast for road conditions). 

Since Ready Assess™ has the power to assess a novice driver’s preparedness in these areas and provide them with customized feedback, the system has the potential to motivate that driver to practice more at an opportune moment. Given that about 95 percent of crashes are due to driver error, improving these skills has the potential to reduce incidences of serious crash scenarios.

Data Drives New Insights for VDT

Dr. Winston and her team are not stopping there. With a recent grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Dr. Winston will link non-identifiable driver performance data from the “Ohio - Ready, Test, Drive!” program to licensing and crash records to create a dataset of new driver skills; classify skill deficits by age, sex, and time in the learning period; and quantify the relationship between skill deficits and crash rates during the first two months of licensure. With data from 48,000 new driver applicants (and counting), Dr. Winston hopes to gain a better sense of the skills that are critical to teach before time zero, and the skill deficits that are most associated with crashes.

“We’re extending our research so that we can answer the questions: ‘What kind of crashes do new drivers get in and why? What’s predictive? Are there differences by driver characteristics, such as age, that will guide us toward tailored interventions?” Dr. Winston said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is really drill down, for a unique individual, what about their driving skills and attitudes predicts whether or not they’re going to crash – and what can we do to help?” More broadly, Dr. Winston also hopes to learn how driving education training administrators can use these insights to improve curriculum and related policy.

Learn more about Ready-Assess™ and virtual driving technology in a blog by Dr. Winston.

Learn more about how ODPS customized technology developed by CHOP and Diagnostic Driving in a CHOP research brief.