IOWA CITY — University of Iowa senior Kyle Losik rumbled atop an all-terrain vehicle Wednesday over grassy fields with mountain vistas.
Impossible near downtown Iowa City? Not with a new virtual-reality simulator UI scientists created to find solutions to pervasive problems: how and why hundreds of people a year lose control of ATVs and become injured or die.
The collaboration involving the UI College of Engineering’s Center for Computer-Aided Design and the UI Children’s Hospital ATV Safety Task Force uses a virtual-reality headset, special driver jumpsuit fitted with 17 motion sensors and a movable platform simulating changes in terrain.
With ATV-related crashes and deaths on the rise, the researchers’ goal is to improve safety using data that will inform both drivers and government regulators. The findings also could help the industry make safer vehicles and improve gear for riders.
“A lot of this is trying to really identify what kind of factors are issues and what are the most important factors contributing to loss of control,” said Charles Jennissen, UI clinical professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine and member of the UI ATV Safety Task Force.
With summer now in full bloom and ATV use peaking, Jennissen said riders — including parents thinking about letting children drive or be passengers — need to consider the risks.
Nearly 800 ATV-related deaths and 450,000 ATV-related injuries are reported nationally every year.
That translates to about 150,000 ATV-related emergency room visits annually — about 200 of which occur in Iowa. The state sees an average of 10 ATV-related deaths a year, Jennissen said — and a third of those involve children.
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Iowa has seen a slew of ATV crashes and deaths. A pregnant woman and her unborn twins died near Logan in March in a crash that also injured her 3-year-old son. In 2014, 9-year-old twins died in an ATV crash in Linn County. In 2015, a 4-year-old driver died when the ATV rolled on top of him.
Nonetheless, ATV use remains strong.
“There are more ATVs in Iowa than tractors,” Jennissen said.
And many Iowans are taking risks — some unwittingly. For example, he said, some communities are legalizing ATV use on roads even though the vehicles are not intended for pavement.
“Right now, 60 percent of the deaths occur on roadways because it’s a vehicle designed for off-road use,” Jennissen said. “And yet people are doing it all the time. ... It’s a big problem that’s going to make more injuries and deaths in this state.”
People also often disregard instructions warning against passengers and youth drivers. But UI’s simulator could show why that guidance is there.
“We can say, this is why a passenger is a problem,” he said. “And, even though your kid can push the throttle, they shouldn’t be on them.”
The simulator could produce insight for improved guidance and regulations.
“A lot of these crashes or loss of control events occur, and we really don’t know how they happen,” Jennissen said. “We don’t really know what we can do to try to prevent them.”
Losik, who served as Wednesday’s test driver, worked with graduate student Jake Michael to design the simulator and create the virtual reality environment.
Michael, a biomedical engineering student who worked with associate professor Salam Rahmatalla, led the effort for his master’s project — developing the software and overseeing the simulator creation.
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Initial funding for the pilot portion of the project came in the form of $15,000 from the UI’s Injury Prevention Research Center. A consortium of five universities including Iowa also offered $85,000 last year, Rahmatalla said.