Simulator to help children learn to cross streets safely

Psychology Professor David Schwebel, Ph.D., is helping area children learn to cross the street safely using portable simulation technology he developed at UAB.

Safe pedestrian behavior requires sophisticated cognitive-perceptual skills — skills that are still developing in children — and Schwebel says training can help reduce their vulnerabilities,

“Children using the simulator can learn whether they’re safe or not safe, and learn those difficult skills of figuring out how fast that car is moving, how far away it is and how quickly it will get to where they are,” Schwebel said. “And we can do all that virtually without the child’s actually being at risk of being hit by a car.”

Pedestrian injuries are a leading cause of death in children around the world, and a 2014 reportSmart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition — ranked the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area No. 6 among cities in which pedestrians are more likely to be killed by vehicles.

Putting the reality in virtual

The new simulator, which uses virtual reality to teach 7- and 8-year-olds safe street-crossing skills, was put into practice first at two local elementary schools — Hemphill Elementary School and Bluff Park Elementary School.

Before using the simulator, students record their personal walking speed so the activity is as realistic as possible for each individual. The environment recreates the street and crosswalk in front of a local school, and it gives the user various traffic patterns to monitor from both directions.

“Children using the simulator can learn whether they’re safe or not safe, and learn those difficult skills of figuring out how fast that car is moving, how far away it is and how quickly it will get to where they are. And we can do all that virtually without the child’s actually being at risk of being hit by a car.”

When the child decides it is safe and traffic is clear, they step down from the platform and trigger their virtual self to walk across the street. The users can see themselves cross, so they can learn whether or not they were safe in crossing.

Making the city safer

This summer, UAB is partnering with the YMCA of Greater Birmingham to bring the simulator to children from all of the local YMCA branches. It will be housed at the YMCA Youth Center in the Park Place neighborhood downtown, and the other branches will provide transportation for children to be able to use the simulator.

“The pedestrian safety simulator gives us an awesome opportunity to safely help our youth with the too-often-overlooked aspect of safely crossing streets,” said Anthony Sparks, YMCA of Greater Birmingham’s youth center director. "By being able to put the kids in a virtual-reality environment and teach them the fundamentals of street-crossing, we hope we can do our small part to reduce the number of children and families affected by pedestrian-related accidents.”

The simulator was funded by grants from the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Schwebel plans to work with schools again this fall to bring the simulator into more local classrooms. His team is working to develop an online component that would enable the technology to be used anywhere in the world.

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