Novice drivers seldom anticipate danger on the road, UMass researcher finds

November 15, 2002

AMHERST, Mass. - Younger, inexperienced drivers seldom anticipate dangerous situations on the road, according to recent research projects headed by University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher Donald Fisher. In an effort to address the problem, Fisher has expanded the projects by making hazardous driving scenarios available on the Web, so that teenagers can learn how to safely respond to unsafe situations. The findings are detailed in a paper recently published in the journal Human Factors and will be presented at the upcoming annual meetings of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C.. The research was funded by the Link Foundation for Simulation and Training; the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety; and the Massachusetts Governor's Highway Safety Bureau.

"We know that new drivers understand the basics of operating a car," said Fisher, "but problems arise when these new drivers are faced with potentially hazardous situations, such as a hidden stop sign, or a bicyclist riding toward a vehicle. Our research shows that, unlike more experienced drivers, people who are new behind the wheel don't necessarily identify these situations as being potentially dangerous, and therefore they often don't respond in the safest way possible."

The study was conducted in the University's Human Performance Laboratory, a facility that features an advanced driving simulator in which a sedan is placed before three screens, onto which highways and neighborhoods are projected. The "car" reads the driver's speed, direction, and even eye movements as input. Researchers tested 24 teenagers and 48 more experienced drivers and then compared their responses to various driving situations.

"We tested the participants in the driving simulator, and followed their eye movements, to determine whether they really know where the danger is, and the simple fact is, they don't," said Fisher. He used the advanced driving simulator to evaluate the effects of training and experience on drivers' behavior in risky traffic situations.

The series of virtual "drives" on the World Wide Web helps teach new drivers to anticipate dangerous situations - without endangering themselves or others. Fisher and his research team created a series of 16 driving scenarios that teach new drivers to be alert to situations that demand extra caution. The scenarios "drive" through each situation, and then detail safe and unsafe responses. A narrator describes the driving choices as the virtual car moves.

In an effort to make the driving scenarios as effective as possible, Fisher is asking area driver-education teachers to look at the program and offer responses on how it might be best used in a school or driving-school setting. Toward that end, he has invited driver-education teachers to a meeting at the University in early December, to show them the programs and listen to their ideas.

In one particular scenario, in which a driver's view of the traffic in the opposing lane across the intersection is partly blocked by a truck slightly ahead of the driver and in the left-turn lane, almost none of the new drivers, (defined as those on the road six months or less), looked at the right-front corner of the truck to see whether a vehicle might be turning from the opposing lane. However, 30 percent of 20-year-olds looked for danger, and 70 percent of 60-year-olds looked. "The younger drivers, for the most part, are just not aware," said Fisher.
Fisher's co-authors on the paper are N. E. Laurie of Kodak, UMass alumnus Robert Glaser of Supply Chain Consultants, Karen Connerney of IBM, John Brock of the Milestone Group, and UMass psychology faculty members Alexander Pollatsek, and Susan Duffy.

Note: The scenarios are at; click on "Link Foundation." Don Fisher can be reached at 413/545-1657 or

A meeting with teachers is scheduled for Tues., Dec. 3, from 6-8 p.m in Room 120D, Marston Hall. Dinner will be provided. Teachers wishing to attend should contact Fisher ASAP.

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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