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May 14, 2013

Thomas Dingus (left), director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, was honored May 8 as a White House Champion of Change. The awards acknowledged those providing Transportation Technology Solutions for the 21st Century. Dr. Dingus is pictured with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood (right).

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (Blacksburg, Va.) – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that more than 3,300 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011; 18% of crashes in 2010 were reported as distraction-affected crashes. These alarming facts are the driving force behind the revolutionary naturalistic driving studies undertaken at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI): to annually save thousands of lives through the prevention of distracted driving.

To accomplish this goal, VTTI has been iteratively developing its state-of-the-art data acquisition system. These units, which were created in-house, are able to gather continuous video and driving performance data in real-world driving conditions. To date, these systems have been installed in nearly 4,000 vehicles deployed nationally and internationally. This method of data collection and analysis provides unprecedented information about the causes of crashes to designers and policy makers who can develop countermeasures that will lead to reduced crashes and fatalities.

The impacts of VTTI research are widespread and considerable:

  • VTTI studies have shown that looking away from the roadway just prior to the occurrence of an unexpected event is responsible for up to 90% of crash and near-crash events.
  • The VTTI Driver Distraction in Commercial Vehicle Operations study found that texting while driving raises a heavy truck driver’s crash and near-crash risk by 23 times. This statistic has been touted nationally, from New York Times to the Ad Council to AT&T.
  • The “23 times” message helped lead U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a call to end distracted driving. Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia have banned text messaging for all drivers.
  • VTTI teen driving studies have shown that teens are four times more likely to get into a crash or near-crash while distracted than their adult counterparts. Teen fatalities are three times greater than adult fatalities, so this is an important discovery about the prominence of a major causal factor.
  • VTTI light-vehicle naturalistic driving studies have shown that driver drowsiness is a significantly greater factor in crashes and near-crashes than was previously thought. Like heavy trucks, light-vehicle drivers get into crashes and near-crashes between 15% and 20% of the time while at least moderately drowsy. Previous estimates were between 4% and 8%.
  • The VTTI-developed data acquisition system provided the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) the information required to evaluate its hours-of-service regulations (e.g., off-duty time, on-duty time, breaks, re-start provisions). FMCSA adjusted its hours-of-service safety requirements, reducing by 12 the maximum number of hours a truck driver can work within a week (i.e., from 82 to 70 hours).
  • The VTTI Teen Risk and Injury Prevention (TRIP) group is currently developing a teen driving program that provides monitoring and feedback via the VTTI data acquisition system. As a result of their work, researchers with the TRIP group have been featured on the Discovery Channel, 20/20, and 60 Minutes—Australia.

These studies represent only a small fragment of the work performed at VTTI. The Institute continues to conduct such significant projects as the Onboard Monitoring System Field Operational Test, which will result in the largest truck and motorcoach naturalistic data set to date. The Institute was recently tapped by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to conduct the first large-scale, naturalistic motorcycle study. In fact, the national success of VTTI has generated research efforts on a global scale. Currently, VTTI researchers are leading naturalistic driving studies in Shanghai, Canada and Australia.

VTTI has provided lawmakers the ability to use substantiated research to educate the population about driving while distracted. The groundbreaking studies conducted at VTTI are led by researchers who are genuinely invested in reducing, and ultimately eradicating, the number of annual fatalities resulting from distracted driving. Director Thomas A. Dingus was recently named a White House Champion of Change for his exemplary leadership in developing or implementing transportation technology solutions. Under Dr. Dingus’ guidance, VTTI has grown from approximately 15 faculty, staff and students to become the second largest university-level transportation institute in the U.S. with more than 350 employees.

In all endeavors, VTTI personnel are charged with finding solutions to the greatest transportation challenges facing not only the nation but the world. In every sense, those of the Institute are dedicating their lives to saving lives.

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