Light-bulb moment for pedestrian safety

Using virtual reality to improve safety for older pedestrians

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Uni SA researchers set sights on improving safety for older pedestrians.

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HOW often have you been unable to make it across a pedestrian crossing before the light turns red? And how many times have you wondered whether the people who designed the lights ever actually tried them out?

It's a sad fact that older pedestrians are over-represented in road accidents. In fact, up to half of all injured pedestrians in OECD countries are seniors.

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

Now researchers at the University of SA have determined to do something about it.

They have secured a grant from the federal government's Road Safety Innovation Fund to look at virtual reality methods to assess 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 will use eye-tracking, get participants to verbalise their thoughts, and trial wearable biosensors to track indicators of stress such as heart rate, skin conductance response and movement.

"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," said Dr Jun Ahn, whose specialty is construction management.

"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."

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

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

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

The ultimate goal is to have councils use the technology to test road designs while still in the planning stages so problems can be fixed before they happen.

Dr Ahn's research partners are Dr Gun Lee (VR technology) and Dr Ancret Szpak (psychology).

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