University of Iowa lands $17.2 million for driving safety research

Funding, program part of Toyota Economic Loss class action settlement in California

Vehicle crashes kill tens of thousands of people in the United States every year, but University of Iowa researchers say they have real hope – and now a plan – for helping to drive down those numbers.

The UI Public Policy Center has received $17.2 million in grants to conduct a first-of-its-kind survey on vehicle safety, launch a national education campaign and develop new technologies to help prevent some crashes.

“This is an exciting opportunity to move the needle and do more advanced research to reduce crashes even further,” said Daniel V. McGehee, director of the UI policy center’s Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Program.

Funding for the UI research comes as part of the Safety Research and Education Program established by the recent Toyota Economic Loss class action settlement in California. The lawsuit called certain Toyota vehicles defective for accelerating without warning. Toyota denied the claims but agreed to settle out of court, paying millions to plaintiffs and establishing the education program to support university-based research.

The UI’s $17.2 million in grants will fund several projects, starting with a national survey on the public perceptions of vehicle safety technologies. The UI Social Science Research Center will conduct the unique survey analyzing the public perception and understanding of various vehicle safety technologies – like anti-lock brakes, adaptive cruise control or electronic stability control.

“Sometimes people feel like they understand something when they might not,” McGehee said.

Using the survey results, researchers will launch a national education campaign aimed at reaching 90 percent of U.S. adults on more than one medium. Via online tools, smart phone applications and print materials, the campaign will to help motorists understand their vehicles and how to stay safe.

“You will start to see a lot of web applications and games and TV and print advertising around education on the different technologies,” McGehee said.

The grants also will enable officials with the National Advanced Driving Simulator to partner with the UI Department of Geography to develop car sensor systems aimed at preventing some crashes. The technology would use GPS data to determine where a vehicle is located – like in a parking lot or a garage – and control for inadvertent accelerations.

McGehee cited incidents involving drivers who accidentally hit the gas in crowded parking lots, injuring or killing pedestrians.

“There are few cases where someone would need to accelerate full throttle in those conditions,” he said. “The new technology would know where a vehicle is and prevent that intense acceleration from occurring.”

Thanks to the grants, the UI’s National Advanced Driving Simulator also will study driver responses in emergency events and work with the UI Department of Neurology to measure the behavior of younger and older drivers when accelerating and decelerating.

In total, UI research tied to the $17.2 million in grants is expected to take three years, McGehee said. Researchers began work on the survey last week, and they expect it will take about one year to gather responses, analyze them and move forward with the education campaign.

The fundamental goal is to determine the cause of crashes and develop new technology to prevent them or make them less severe, McGehee said. Although vehicle fatalities remain a major killer of Americans, McGehee said, crash avoidance systems have helped to reduce the deaths.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 365 traffic fatalities in Iowa in 2012, down from 412 in 2008. And, McGehee said, he “absolutely” believes those numbers can continue to drop with changes in what and how U.S. motorists drive.

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