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Healthy Balance

Simulating the Driving Experience

Behind-the-wheel driving tests can be an important prerequisite for getting or renewing a driver’s license.

These tests are notoriously subjective. The weather and traffic volumes, for instance, can affect the outcomes. A rainy day in bumper-to-bumper traffic can test one’s driving skill in ways different than a sunny morning with few other cars on the road.

Another possible variation? The driving instructor.

Enter the driving simulator, a car-like driving experience in which the driver can complete all manner of driving tests while virtually traveling on computerized streets.

A team led by UVA researcher Daniel Cox, PhD, has installed two simulators in Department of Motor Vehicles offices in Charlottesville and Fairfax and is now seeking 1,000 volunteers willing to complete a series of driving tests in the simulators.

Volunteers who have DMV transactions can handle their DMV business, as usual. UVA does not share the results of simulator testing with DMV.

While real-life driving tests with a human instructor aren’t going away yet, Cox suggests that data from the virtual tests could provide evidence for such a shift.

Behind the Virtual Wheel

So what’s it like behind the wheel of the simulator at the DMV?

If my experience is any guide, it’s both fun and challenging. The simulated driving experience includes the familiar feel of being behind the wheel of a car. There’s a full-size steering wheel, an accelerator and brakes.

The virtual highways, street and neighborhoods do their best to mimic real-world experience.

The stakes seem higher when you know you’re being measured, however, and staying in the lanes, remembering road signs and keeping a safe distance between cars all require a high degree of focus (as they should in real life!).

The simulated test, which is still only being used for research purposes, currently takes a little over an hour. The researchers expect that the final version of the test will be reduced to 20 minutes.

Safe Driving in the Clinic

Cox has been involved in simulation and driving safety research for the past 20 years and oversees the Virginia Driving Safety Laboratory at UVA.

The facility — which includes simulated driving capabilities — assesses driving safety of individuals recovering from trauma, such as a stroke or brain injury or those dealing with progressive neurological diseases.

Want to test YOUR driving ability? Call 434.924.5314.

See the simulator in action:

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