How does a driving simulator replicate dangerous situations?

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In the year 2009, more than 33,000 people died in vehicle crashes in the United States [source: NHTSA]. If you really digest that sobering stat, you'll realize that you're taking your life into your hands every time you turn your key in your engine. Though we may feel at ease behind a wheel, dozens of variables can make any trip dangerous. Some dangers are external, such as bad weather, slippery roads and limited visibility, while other dangers drivers bring upon themselves, like alcohol impairment and cell phone use.

Other than the uniformed police officers helping to monitor our roads against dangerous driving behavior, some of the most important heroes of the highway are actually in lab coats tucked away in research facilities. And one of the most useful methods of lab research uses driving simulators, which create virtual realities that imitate real-life driving situations.

If you've ever played a sit-down driving game in an arcade, you have a sense of what a driving simulator is. But it can be an even more immersive than that. And while video games typically imitate NASCAR or street drag races, labs use driving simulators that recreate average, albeit dangerous, driving situations.

Given the death rate on the highways, research gathered with a sophisticated, realistic simulator is invaluable. Modern technology allows researchers to control every variable of the road while observing countless details about the driver, including eye movement, delay time and even brain activity. In the safety of a controlled, virtual reality, researchers study the effects of dangerous external driving situations as well as sleep deprivation, drug and alcohol impairment and cell phone distractions, among other things. Studying this wealth of information gives clues to how to design safer roads as well as how to protect a driver from him or herself.

But driving simulators come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more sophisticated and able to create a more immersive experience than others. But researchers say that even the simplest simulators provide useful information about how drivers act in dangerous driving conditions. We'll explore the technology of driving simulators next.

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