2014 Research Report

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The simulators are the work of psychology professor Dyre and Werner, who use the lab to train their graduate students and serve external customers with top-of-the-line research

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Brian Dyre with his Psychology driving simulator students

Enhancing Safety with Simulation

Human factors researchers study transportation, control systems with high-tech scenarios

By Tara Roberts

A rural railroad crossing at night, an airplane landing in rough conditions and a bank of nuclear reactor controls all fit into one lab at the University of Idaho.

The Human-in-the-Loop Simulation Laboratory features multiple simulators and analysis tools for understanding how human behaviors affect safety outcomes, and how those behaviors can be influenced. The lab is operated by Brian Dyre and Steffen Werner, faculty in the UI College of Letters, Arts and Social Science's Department of Psychology and Communication Studies' graduate program in human factors.

Inside the lab, banks of enormous liquid-crystal displays become an immersive environment for test subjects. Instruments measure their reactions to simulated situations down to the level of eye-movement and breathing rate.

The lab features a small aviation simulator and a process-control simulator designed in partnership with Idaho National Laboratory. But the focal point is the driving simulator built from a Chevy S10 pickup cab complete with simulated side-mirror images, a dashboard display, and the sounds of a rumbling engine and squealing brakes.

The simulators are the work of psychology professor Dyre and Werner, who use the lab to train their graduate students and serve external customers with top-of-the-line research.

Such work is vital to helping students understand how the psychological and statistical techniques they learn in class translate to the real world, Dyre says.

“It makes the knowledge real,” says graduate student Zach Spielman, who works with the flight simulator to study how new formats for airplane instrument systems affect how accurately pilots can land in bad weather.

Dyre, associate civil engineering professor Mike Dixon and UI’s Social Science Research Unit recently partnered on a project for the Idaho Transportation Department to study the effectiveness of a reflective warning sign used at rural railroad crossings, known as Idashield, which is up for a redesign. Dyre used the driving simulator to study how real drivers on realistic, simulated roads responded to the signs. Preliminary results show they signs are helping prevent accidents.

“It seems to be having a positive impact in keeping people, especially at night, from crossing in front of trains,” Dyre says.

Two other projects utilize the driving simulator to find ways to improve passing behavior on rural highways.

The first – in partnership with UI’s National Institute for Advanced Transportation Technology, University of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Transportation – studies ways to encourage people to drive slower in the right-hand land of passing zones.

“They were having very, very severe, often fatal, accidents occur in these brand new passing zones they put in,” Dyre says.

The team discovered the best tactic was introducing different speed limits for different lanes, and Alaska is planning to request permission from the Federal Highway Administration to test the split speed limit in the field.

Building on the Alaska project, Dyre is working with UI civil engineers to look at passing behavior on two-lane rural highways in general. His research team will use the driving simulator to understand how sight distance, road geometry, traffic, vehicle size and other factors contribute to drivers’ speed and safety.

“What factors do people take into account when they’re deciding whether to pull out into that oncoming lane to pass?”

This and other projects are part of Dyre’s recent focus on issues related to rural roads

"It makes sense to be doing this type of research that applies to Idaho and the Northwest, but it’s not getting a lot of attention anywhere else,” he says.