By Paula Bradley InPsych Production Editor

Many people who obtained their driver's licence in Victoria would be astonished at how much it has all changed in a decade (this article will concentrate on developments in that State). The age you can first get a Learner Permit has changed to 16 from 17, you need to hold that permit for six months before you can do your Probationary Licence test, pressure to do the test has been removed (duration of the Learner Permit has been extended to 10 years) and a computerised, interactive Hazard Perception Test (HPT) has become a compulsory part of the process. Even if you pass the driving test for your P-plates, if you don't pass the HPT, you have to do the whole lot again.

So what has this got to do with psychology? A great deal is the simple answer. InPsych Production Editor, PAULA BRADLEY, spoke to Professor Tom Triggs, who is Deputy Director of the Monash University Accident Research Centre, to explore the centre's role in influencing some of these changes for young drivers. A future issue will explore some of the ways State-based statutory authorities approach road-user behaviour.

UP UNTIL the early 1990s, driver-training literature emphasised psycho-motor skills, but research began to show the benefits of emphasis on the cognitive aspects of driving - risk perception, multiple-task performance and allocation of attention - by increasing the amount of practice young drivers engaged in before becoming solo drivers.

Crash risk is highest early in the Probationary Licence period, but this almost halves after six to eight months of driving experience and goes further down with time. Of those who crash, it is estimated that between 50% and 70% are a result of skill errors attributed to a lack of experience.

By contrast, research shows Learners with an accompanying driver are among the safest on the road, so the thinking went that the more time a young driver spent in that environment developing the cognitive skills to prevent such crashes, the safer the first six months on P-plates would be. (A MUARC study for the ACT Government (Regan & Mitsopoulos, 2002) found that young drivers drove more cautiously when carrying their parents, older passengers and children due to a greater sense of responsibility. This contrasts with the negative influence of peer-group passengers, particularly on young male drivers.)

Several initiatives to encourage learner drivers to gain more on-road experience resulted, with advice that a minimum of 120 hours on-road experience over two years was optimal, instead of the previously recommended 50-80 hours. The laws in Victoria were changed to accommodate these recommendations.

MUARC's Deputy Director, Professor Tom Triggs, says that after "more time on L plates" was demonstrated as an effective crash-risk counter measure, one of MUARC's many projects was to move on to the development of a CD-Rom driver-training package, Drive Smart, to accelerate the acquisition of those higher-level cognitive skills.

The Drive Smart research project was made possible by MUARC's involvement with driving simulators. It all began in 1989 when Professor Triggs attended a Transport Research Board meeting in the United States and was shown a small commercial driving simulator. He was very impressed by this and not long after, MUARC obtained a copy that is still in operation, primarily to serve the centre's focus on young drivers.

It was an elementary type of simulator, however, and one of MUARC's key sponsors, the Victorian Transport Accident Commission (TAC), indicated its willingness to underwrite development of a more advanced simulator. Psychologists, engineers and computer scientists went to work to represent the key environmental aspects of what's important from the point-of-view of driver performance. Establishing 180¼ forward-field view (horizontal), 40¼ vertical field of view and rear vision capability, adequate fidelity of the scene ahead and behind, time constants (how much to refresh the screen, what delays were acceptable in the system), an appropriate auditory system and the ride-feel system were some of the many aspects that needed to be covered.

Two copies of the simulator resulted, although one was eventually sold to the United States Navy. Professor Triggs says all the hard work that went into the simulator's development has paid off. "The simulator has really added to the research program of MUARC in a whole range of human-performance experimental psychology programs," he says.

"As far as Drive Smart is concerned, many experiments related to its development were conducted in the simulator, and once it was produced, we then evaluated its effectiveness using the simulator. We were able to show the effectiveness of Drive Smart, although the ultimate measure, of course, is the accident rate."

Another area of psychological input into development of the Drive Smart package was an intense research program into effective training methods (Triggs & Regan, 1998). One of the training techniques used was Variable Priority Training (VPT), in which participants were asked to perform two or more tasks concurrently. They were instructed to vary the relative amount of attention that they gave to each task across training trials. Regan, Deery & Triggs (1998), found that the attentional control skills of novice drivers could be enhanced using VPT.

"The way in which we approached development of Drive Smart program, I don't think has been replicated anywhere else," Professor Triggs says. "It represented a good direction to go in, with its emphasis on higher-level cognitive skills instead of particular psycho-motor skills."

Drive Smart is now widely available in schools and libraries, and can be obtained free from the TAC six months after a Learner Driver has obtained his or her permit. It has become a popular aid for young drivers seeking their Probationary Licence, perhaps because the material is similar to what they expect when they do the compulsory Hazard Perception Test.

The Safe Car

One of MUARC's latest big projects has been to develop and evaluate an Intelligent Transport System (ITS) - specifically its Safe Car (funded by the TAC). Dr Mike Regan is heading up this project to provide cars with various aids in order to facilitate safe-driving performance. Controlled by a computer map and geo-positioning system, the car feeds the driver information about his or her relationship to the speed limit, zone to zone. It has a following-distance warning system, a seat-belt warning system and day-time running lights.

Fifteen vehicles will be evaluated in fleet trials in the next 15 months.

"We've given a great deal of thought to the experimental design and evaluation of performance measures for this real-world trial," Professor Triggs says.

"There has been a great deal of psychological research behind this project. And to optimise characteristics of the warning systems, further work in the simulator is planned to concentrate on some of the fine-grained detail."

Professor Triggs believes the potential to the community of the Safe Car is enormous: "It allows us to put an associate in the car with the driver. That associate is the Intelligent Transport System which can monitor/warn/control the driver and thus has the potential to reduce risky behaviour.

"Although there is no evidence yet that young drivers would get a differentially higher benefit from an Intelligent Transport System, I'm willing to bet they would.

"Maybe in time, and this is pure conjecture, we might be able to demonstrate benefits in providing particular aids to young drivers."

References

Regan & Mitsopoulos (2002), Understanding Passenger Influences on Driver Behaviour: Implications for Road Safety and Recommendations for Countermeasure Development, Monash University Accident Research Centre - Report #180.

Regan, Deery & Triggs (1998), 'A technique for enhancing risk perception in novice car drivers', Proceedings of the Road Safety Research, Policing and Education Conference, New Zealand, pp51-56

Triggs & Regan (1998), 'Development of a Cognitive Skills Training Product for Novice Drivers', Proceedings of the Road Safety Research, Policing and Education Conference, New Zealand, pp46-50

A brief history of MUARC

In 1987 Professor Peter Vulcan, who was then head of road safety at the Victorian Road Traffic Authority (now Vicroads), approached Professor Triggs with his idea that there would increasingly be a need for an independent voice in road safety research in that State. They approached Monash University with Peter's idea for a multi-disciplinary centre made up of psychologists, statisticians, traffic engineers, mechanical engineers, medical doctors and nurses. The University agreed to house the facility, which began with only four staff members (it now consists of 57 full-time equivalent positions).

The model approved for the research centre was that it be 'free standing', in that it did not report to a Dean of a particular faculty, but to the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research. Professor Triggs believes that although the centre has good relationships with the relevant faculties, it has been advanced by its independent model, "because it doesn't commit us to a particular disciplinary stream".

The Baseline Research program was established as a source of 'hard funding' for more strategic research, which is monitored by sponsors such as the Department of Justice (Victoria), the Transport Accident Commission, the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV) Ltd, VicRoads and Victoria Police.

For more information about MUARC, go to www.general.monash.edu.au/muarc