Older pedestrians are overrepresented in road fatalities, with a recent report from Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission finding people aged 70 and over account for 32 per cent of the state’s pedestrian deaths, despite representing only ten per cent of the population.

Research suggests road intersection design, crossing widths, location and timing of traffic lights, and density and type of traffic, all play a part in the overrepresentation of older people in road accidents.

While urban planners strive to consider all these dimensions when designing pedestrian areas, it is often very difficult to accurately predict the interaction of so many elements until they come together in a real-world scenario.

A new research project from the University of South Australia will deliver a novel solution to this design challenge, simulating upgrades to roads, crossings and footpaths using virtual reality (VR) technology in order to improve safety for elderly pedestrians.

Expert researchers team up

Cognitive psychologist, Dr Ancret Szpak

Researchers from UniSA’s Australian Research Centre for Interactive and Virtual Environments and Brain-Behaviour-Body Research Concentration will develop a walkable VR environment suitable for use by older people, which will help planners and engineers design and test better roads and footpaths.

Supported through funding from the Road Safety Innovation Fund (RSIF), the interdisciplinary project draws upon the expertise of three UniSA researchers from diverse fields – construction management expert Dr Jun Ahn, VR technologist Dr Gun Lee, and cognitive psychologist Dr Ancret Szpak.

“Having access to a wide range of data from both virtual and real environments means we can overcome the limitations of previous ways of assessing pedestrian safety,” Dr Ahn said.

“Through this project we will create a virtual environment to simulate the road environment. “We can easily change that virtual model to test the impact that a range of factors, such as intersection designs, crossing widths and traffic signals, have on road safety.

“The project will focus on the needs of older people, who may, for example, have impaired vision or hearing, need a walking aid, or require longer to cross the road than young people.”

Construction management expert, Dr Jun Ahn

The interdisciplinary nature of the project reflects the diverse challenges faced by the research team, which must not only precisely evaluate the real-world challenges encountered by older pedestrians, but also accurately recreate those challenges in an adaptable virtual environment.

“Our research combines areas of human-computer interaction, psychology, neuroscience and safety science,” Dr Szpak said. “Each team member adds a unique perspective which has led us to develop an innovative methodology for measuring pedestrian safety factors for vulnerable road users.”

Vr locomotion techniques

The research will draw data from multiple user experience methods including eye-tracking, ThinkAloud techniques (asking participants to verbalise their thoughts), and wearable biosensors to track physiological indicators of stress such as heart rate, skin conductance response and movement.

Many of these techniques have already been successfully trialled through a pilot study at Glenelg in Adelaide.

“In the pilot study, we used eye-tracking and biosensors to identify stressors and challenges older pedestrians faced when navigating a busy Adelaide area,” Dr Szpak said.

“This new project will extend this pilot study by including a virtual reality user experience to gain further insights into pedestrian behaviour.”

The development of the VR environment will begin with testing a range of different ‘VR locomotion techniques’ – essentially the means through which participants interact with the testing platform – in order to make a VR environment suitable to older people’s particular walking characteristics.

VR technologist, Dr Gun Lee

“Recreating the physical environment in VR is time consuming and challenging,” Dr Lee said. “As we cannot model every detail, we have to decide the right level of detail, so that VR simulation will reflect the reality enough for assessing and testing the new design of the road.

“We are working hard to explore various technical alternatives to find the right tools to achieve the goal.”

Expanding to other infrastructure planning scenarios

Over the course of the three-year study, researchers will compare vulnerable pedestrians’ experiences in real environments with experiences captured in the virtual environment they develop, refining the VR experience until it accurately reflects real life.

“Our ultimate ambition is for councils to be able to use this technology to test road designs virtually with vulnerable pedestrians while still in the planning stages,” Dr Ahn said.

“This means city planners can get an idea of how safe and usable the built environment will be and address any road safety issues well before construction begins.”

The researchers also believe the method they will develop could be adapted to a range of other infrastructure scenarios, allowing planners to ‘test drive’ designs and iron out any issues before committing to the costly construction phase.

“If we can demonstrate the effectiveness of our methodology, there are many other areas of urban planning that could benefit, such as construction sites, shared spaces with pedestrians and vehicles, and new urban development projects across Australia,” Dr Szpak said.

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