Research Communications

Ohio University driving simulation lab to improve traffic, construction zone safety 

ATHENS, Ohio (Oct. 8, 2010) — How do drivers respond to traffic control devices that signal them to travel with caution around construction zones—in the snow, rain or at night? That’s one of many traffic safety questions Ohio University hopes to answer with its new driving simulation lab.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the Russ College of Engineering and Technology is now home to one of only two driving simulators in Ohio—the other is at Cleveland State University—and one of only 40 such university and industry labs around the world, said Deborah McAvoy, an assistant professor of civil engineering and director of the project. The facility will be used to determine the most effective traffic devices for highway operations and work zone safety and can help assess the cause of roadway crashes.

The driving simulator features half of a real Ford sedan that provides a sense of motion for the user.

Computer screens that display a variety of traffic scenarios surround the vehicle.

Although civil engineers conduct field studies to observe how drivers respond to roadway conditions, researchers can’t always get a statistically significant sample size, McAvoy explained. The simulation lab will allow the engineer and her graduate students to test a traffic situation on hundreds of different drivers who volunteer as research subjects.

“All of our field studies rely on individuals on the roadway – and on Mother Nature,” she said. “There are just some things we can’t study in the field.”

The lab, located at Stocker Center, features the front half of a Ford Focus connected to a computer simulation system loaded with hundreds of different driving scenarios, from a rural road dotted with deer and emergency vehicles to a city highway choked with traffic and icy asphalt. The car is surrounded by three large screens that project traffic scenes, and its rearview and side view mirrors display additional real-time images. The car is equipped with a Q-Motion platform that simulates a sense of movement for the driver. The system was purchased through DriveSafety, Inc., of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The lab also features an eye-tracking system that can show researchers how long drivers look at certain objects on the roadway and how often their eyes close from fatigue. It monitors other facial gestures that signal alertness or distraction.

Deborah McAvoy is director of the new driving simulation laboratory.

McAvoy and colleagues plan to recruit test drivers from a variety of ages in Athens this fall for projects such as how drivers react to different signs alerting them to changes in speed limits, as well as how drivers respond to rumble strips placed outside of construction zones. Related field research was conducted on the rumble strips project last spring at the State Rte. 682/Richland Avenue roundabout construction site.

In addition, McAvoy has received notice of a $245,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for a study on the most effective combination of colors, reflective stripes, lights and logos for emergency vehicles, in order to increase their visibility and avoid crashes.

The driving simulator already has begun to yield study findings that could make roadway work zones safer for drivers and construction workers. Research by Ohio University civil engineering graduate student Steve Busam found that new diamond-grade sheeting can better alert drivers to lane closures for construction zones. Busam observed this in the field during day and evening conditions, and is currently using the driving simulator to confirm whether drivers would respond well to the sheeting during virtual fog and rain—conditions too dangerous to test in the real world, he said.

Busam has found that drivers were more likely to reduce speed and keep a safe distance from the construction zone than when high-intensity sheeting—the current industry standard in Ohio—was in use. Though diamond-grade sheeting is more expensive, it could help reduce crashes, he said.

In addition to the work by McAvoy and colleagues and students in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, the driving simulation lab will be used by faculty members in areas such as such as psychology, health and communication sciences. These researchers will study issues such as how elderly drivers with physical impairments or teens with behavioral problems react to situations behind the wheel. Many driving simulation labs around the country are focused on such medical and rehabilitation issues, McAvoy noted, while only a few are dedicated exclusively for civil engineering research.

Contacts: Deborah McAvoy, (740) 593-1468,; Director of Research Communications Andrea Gibson, (740) 597-2166,