UAB professor combines pedestrian safety with technology to help Birmingham-area children

By on July 3, 2014
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Pedestrian injuries are a leading cause of death in children in the United States and around the world, and a pedestrian simulator developed by psychology professor David Schwebel is helping area children learn how to cross the street in a safe environment.

In a 2014 report of cities where people walking are more likely to be killed by vehicles, Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition ranked the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area sixth.

Schwebel developed his simulator after realizing that safe pedestrian behavior requires sophisticated cognitive-perceptual skills. Knowing that these skills are still developing in children, he recognized that they would be particularly vulnerable in pedestrian situations.

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

“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.”

Before using the simulator, student participants record their personal walking speed so that the activity will be 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.

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.

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 implement the simulator into more classrooms in the local area. His team is also working on technology for an online component that would allow the technology to eventually be used in schools throughout the world.

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