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New research project uses VR to make Australian roads safer

Virtual reality technology is being used to improve pedestrian safety for older Australians, thanks to the work of researchers at the University of South Australia.

The project

The new project will see planned upgrades to roads and pedestrian areas simulated using virtual reality technology, with the aim of improving road safety for older people, and helping planners and engineers to design better roads and footpaths.

Over the course of the three-year study, researchers will compare vulnerable pedestrians experiences in real environments with experiences captured in virtual environments.

VR-based user experience methods will be used to record and identify safety issues for the people involved in the study. This involves testing options called VR locomotion techniques, that make a VR environment walkable by considering older people's individual characteristics.

A pilot study has already been undertaken on Jetty Road at Glenelg.

A look at the stats

Older pedestrians are over-represented in road accidents with up to 50% of all injured pedestrians in OECD countries being seniors.

Similarly, a study by Victoria Walks found people aged 65 and over represent 14.6% of the population yet account for 39% of all pedestrian fatalities.

The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications has awarded UniSA a $142,034 Road Safety Innovation Fund (RSIF) grant to investigate the VR-based methods for assessing pedestrian safety through the eyes and experiences of older people.

Research suggests road intersection design, crossing widths, traffic light locations and timings as well as traffic types and density, all play a part in the over-representation of older people in road accidents.

The researchers

The interdisciplinary study involves three UniSA researchers Dr Jun Ahn (Construction Management), Dr Gun Lee (VR technology) and Dr Ancret Szpak (Psychology).

Dr Ahn says, the study will use user experience methods including eye-tracking, getting participants to verbalise their thoughts (ThinkAloud techniques), and wearable biosensors to track physiological indicators of stress such as heart rate, skin conductance response and movement.

He says, "Having access to a wide range of data from both virtual and real environments means we can overcome the limitations of previous ways of assessing pedestrian safety.

"Through this project we will create a virtual environment to simulate the road environment. We can easily change that virtual model to test the impact that a range of factors, such as intersection designs, crossing widths and traffic signals, have on road safety."

The project will focus on the needs of older people, who may, for example, have impaired vision or hearing, need a walking aid or require longer to cross the road than young people, Dr Ahn says.

Dr Ahn says he hopes to build on that work through this new project, in line with the City of Holdfast Bay's long-term plan for renovating the Jetty Road.

Dr Ahn says, “Our ultimate ambition is for councils to be able to use this technology to test road designs virtually with vulnerable pedestrians, while still in the planning stages.

“This means city planners can get an idea of how safe and usable the built environment will be and address any road safety issues well before construction begins.

“By making roads safer and decreasing the likelihood of accidents, we hope to see more older people taking a stroll.”