Increasingly in our "fast and furious" society, we rely on our beloved automobiles to get to where we need to go. From traveling across country to commuting to work, driving cars has greatly impacted the way we live; without them, we would not enjoy the speed and ease of transportation that we do now. However, there have been many tragedies caused by automobile crashes. Although manufacturers have recently added new features to vehicles to decrease the likelihood of becoming injured while behind the wheel, our cars are often only as safe as their drivers are.
Out of all drivers, teenagers have been proven statistically the most likely to be involved in a traffic fatality. In 2009, in the state of Texas alone, 386 persons between the ages of 16 and 20 were killed in automobile crashes. This and other data supports that teenage drivers are, of all age groups, the least safe behind the wheel. While it might be assumed that young drivers are able to react more quickly and more sharply due to better reflexes, teenagers are in fact more prone to accidents. They do not react as quickly as they should because of factors such as distracted driving and lack of experience.
In addition, nearly 60 percent of all fatal crashes in the state occur in rural areas. Previous research shows that for every 100 million vehicle miles travelled (MVMT) on rural roads, there are 2.44 fatalities. In urban areas, however, for every 100 MVMT, there are only 0.88 fatalities — demonstrating that rural roads are almost three times as dangerous. Despite urban areas having more traffic and congestion on busy highways, rural areas still from data prove to be more treacherous — and particularly so for teenage drivers.
Rural areas present long, straight stretches of road with fewer lanes and fewer cars, an indication to many young drivers that it is safe to become preoccupied with another activity — such as eating, texting, or applying make-up —while driving. Also, it is possible to encounter rarities in driving rules and road signage in rural areas that are not found in big cities. For example, it is common to find two-way frontage roads in rural areas such as Abilene, Texas. Roads like this can be difficult to maneuver because less maintenance in lower populated areas sometimes means signs and dividing lines are faded or obscure to the inexperienced eye. It is especially difficult to know how to respond to situations like two-way frontage roads if one has not ever experienced them before. Lastly, extensive experience is paramount when driving under various weather conditions. When roads are icy or wet due to precipitation or characterized by high-speed winds, different driving precautions must be taken in order to remain control of a vehicle. Particularly dangerous and common in rural areas are stretches of road that have been extremely dry due to long sun exposure and suddenly become wet after a rain storm. These roads become slick and deceivingly so, an additional hazard for teenage drivers which they may be unaware of until it is too late. Overall, distractions coupled with overall lack of experience driving on rural roads and in different conditions accounts for many teenage automobile deaths.
In response to this problem, Dr. Hongchao Liu, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Texas Tech, has received a $130,000 grant from the Texas Department of Transportation to conduct research that will make a difference in these staggering rates. Liu's primary goal is to create a driving simulation for rural road safety education specifically targeted for teenage drivers. The simulation will present many different driving scenarios that resemble potential situations on rural roads. Factors utilized in creating these scenarios will include the rural highway quality and location as well as weather conditions, along with the experience levels of the teenage drivers who will undergo the simulation. The animated simulation will attempt to cover many possible incidents that lead to teenage fatalities in rural areas, and collect data that may contribute to reducing them in the future. Liu will record information including reaction time and the way teenagers respond to different situations. Liu will also be able to test, for example, the difference between a focused driver and a distracted driver by conducting simulations with students who simultaneously conduct a phone call, send text messages, or listen to loud music while responding to the driving scenario.
For the data to be extensive and representative of the population, Liu will offer the simulation to many different volunteers from high schools in Lubbock County, where it is possible for these teenagers to experience many rural highways. In the future, there is potential to create an online version of the simulation that will make the education available to even more teenagers. This simulation would also include a forum for participants to offer feedback and to share stories of dangerous rural road encounters with other drivers their age, all in attempt to prevent deadly accidents. Within a few years, Liu plans to create a large database for the Texas Department of Transportation which will integrate data regarding different factors involved in fatalities: weather conditions, details and location of crash, the types of vehicles, severity of the injuries, and the demographics of the people involved. This data will in time be used to identify key components of rural highway fatalities and to show the impact that the teenage driver education program may have on fatality rates. In the future, it may be possible to identify key determinants of automobile deaths. This information could give Liu and the Texas Department of Transportation even more power to save lives, and even prevent crashes altogether.
Research thus far has uncovered that of all factors contributing to automobile deaths (weather, road conditions, signs, location), human error is the leading cause of accidents. From distracted driving to poor reaction time, human error, however deadly, may prove to be the factor that is most preventable and of which we have the most control. With this in mind, Liu hopes to prevent human error in the teenage population through his research. The rural road simulation will directly respond to the age group of drivers who are likely to experience driving in a rural areas. Through the simulation, teenagers will be educated to prevent fatal crashes, and data will be collected to discover better ways to reduce this fatal human error in the future. In Liu's opinion, if his research can save as few as one to two lives a year, the cost-benefit ratio is well over 100, and the simulation will be a success. In the end, Liu hopes to discover scientifically and technically which factors contribute to fatal crashes, using the animated simulation to provide teenage drivers the experience and knowledge they need to remain safe on the road.