Turn on, tune in, drop out.
Once stated as the slogan for counterculture ideals of the 1960s, the slogan has taken on a new meaning in this modern age, where digital technology is interwoven within the very fabric of our society. One of these technologies is virtual reality, also known as VR. You simply must turn on the VR headset, tune into the environment it presents, and drop out from your ordinary stream of consciousness. At least for a little while.
The application for entertainment is perhaps understandable because of how novel and engaging placing yourself in a different version of reality can be. As VR becomes more sophisticated, and our understanding of its potential applications increases, it is also becoming increasingly used as a pedagogical tool. Indeed, there are some promising signs that VR can be used to enhance road safety, taking into consideration the hard work showcased by researchers and industry experts at the Immersive Community Education (ICE) Live Road & Community Safety VR conference, hosted by First Car and Road Safety GB.
Firstly, there was a talk from Devon Allcoat, an Assistant Professor at the University of Warwick, about using VR in general learning. She spoke with quiet confidence about the principles for VR on learning outcomes, which was posited as being more effective than other measures. The theory she
based her thinking on is that active learning leads to better outcomes, with VR leading to the strongest performance due to being the most interactive form of teaching. Her study’s results supported her rationale, suggesting that VR was indeed more effective than other measures.
It should be noted that the sample in her experiment comprised predominantly of younger people. The results should therefore be taken with caution when extrapolating to using VR for learning through the ages, given that there is tentative evidence to suggest that older people do not learn as effectively as younger people. This was shown in an experiment that tested memory, where older people made almost three times more errors in memory recall than younger people . Dr. Allcoat also did not measure learning in relation to driving and road safety, so how her results relate to transport research was not certain.
Fortunately, Elizabeth Box, Research Director at the RAC Foundation, provided some context for using VR for driving safety interventions. She commented on the main findings of a report by Agilysis, which looked at 31 reports of road safety and VR. The finding was that there were no negative effects for younger drivers, but equally there were no positive effects. Her suggestion was that VR needs to be more nuanced for learning outcomes, with psychological models of behaviour change being used to identify what aspects of behaviour should be targeted to enhance driver safety, depending on the demographic .
For instance, younger drivers, especially male, are more prone to boredom, compared to older drivers. The focus in this group could be on using VR to reduce the likelihood of drivers engaging with distractions, given that boredom is found to be alleviated by drivers engaging in other non-driving related tasks. In comparison, older drivers have more depreciated cognition than younger drivers, so using VR for enhancing adaptive behaviours for the skills within the driving task could be used for this demographic. The difference in the comparison noted here is that the former is about reducing secondary non-driving activities, whereas the latter is about proactively adapting skills for driving directly.
Caution should however also be taken to ensure that research results are based on a representative sample. This is because there’s evidence to suggest that studies using university students compared to non-university students lead to higher compliance to speed limits in studies (76% and 53% respectively) due these groups being either compliant or non-compliant to researchers’ demands .
One area that seems ripe for development in VR was presented within a talk by Dr. Victoria Kroll, CEO & Co-Founder of Esitu Solutions: a company that specialises in hazard detection research. She
mentioned that VR could be used for assessing and improving drivers’ ability to respond to hazards on the road. Hazards are defined as items in the driving route that require a change of direction or speed to avoid a road traffic collision. Indeed, an assessment of drivers’ hazard detection using video clips was introduced in the UK’s official driving test in 2002, being advanced to CGI clips in 2015, with the idea that the industry is now moving more toward VR.
She and Professor David Crundall (also a Co-Founder of Esitu Solutions) conducted a 24-month experiment comparing traditional tools to VR tools for hazard detection. This is both for hazard perception (the hazard appears, and the respondent must press a button to indicate they have perceived it) and hazard prediction (there are hints that a hazard will occur in the clip, but the clip cuts off just before the hazard appears, and the respondent must indicate what happens next). They found that CGI clips within VR produces higher accuracy in participant responses than video CGI clips, reflecting performance in traditional hazard perception tests.
VR has also been applied to driving instructor training. Every year there are 10,000 driving instructor requests, which understandably takes a lot of effort and people power to oversee. As such, VR is perceived to increase access so that fewer people are rejected, with the additional benefits that it reduces the time taken for people to pass the course and increases the success rate. All in all, it’s a wonderful tool that seems to lead to better teaching, which subsequently should lead to better students. Consequently, this should theoretically lead more generally to safer roads.
Beyond these, the Horse Society and Cycling UK provided presentations about how VR can enhance equestrian and bicyclist safety on the roads respectively. The main reason that road incidents occur for these groups is that the driver operates the vehicle too closely to either the horse and rider or the cyclist. VR was considered a way to place the driver in the perspective of these vulnerable road users. Interestingly, the representative from Cycling UK indicated that his children never seemed to take an interest in his work with road safety previously, but then they did once he started using VR. This suggests that VR is a useful tool for engagement with the public in a way that other tools are perhaps not. Engagement with young people by using VR was further supported by a Road Safety Officer that has used it to communicate with a wider selection of young people.
VR has clearly bestowed upon the Cycling UK representative the rare accolade of cool points from his children, but efforts from both the Horse Society and Cycling UK have also had wider societal impact. This is evidenced by the VR films being launched in Westminster. Additionally, the VR films have influenced the Highway code change from the 28 January 2022 . This change provides information on safe passing distances and speeds for people driving or riding a motorcycle when overtaking vulnerable road users, including the driver:
- Leaving at least 1.5 metres (5 feet) when overtaking people cycling at speeds of up to 30mph and giving them more space when overtaking at higher speeds.
- Passing people riding horses or driving horse-drawn vehicles at speeds under 10 mph and allowing at least 2 metres (6.5 feet) of space.
- Allowing at least 2 metres (6.5 feet) of space and keeping to a low speed when passing people walking in the road (for example, where there’s no pavement).
- Waiting behind them and do not overtake if it’s unsafe or not possible to meet these clearances.
Another societal impact was found by representatives of West Midlands Fire & Police services. They explored using VR to reduce street racing in the Midlands, which they identified as a major problem. They achieved this by placing individuals in the VR devices and showed the potential consequences of them driving fast. The programme that these public service bodies have established has been running for 6 months now, called Operation Hercules. In this time, 54 people have received the VR intervention, of which 3 people have violated. That is a 94.4% success rate. A brilliant result, albeit only based over a brief period. Additionally, this intervention has been found to reduce court time by 85%. The various impacts presented above indicate the real potential VR has at providing strong social impact for road safety.
Other talks included one from the Good Egg Safety organisation, who used VR to show the impact of child seat position (with a child in it) on what happens when a road incident does occur. The representative stated that this is the safest way to administer crash test safety, but also to influence behaviour with respect to using a child seat in the most optimal way for passenger safety. Alternatively, pedestrian skills were evaluated within VR by Ian Edwards, an independent road safety consultant at New View Consultants. He particularly explored using VR in the schoolroom, showing that VR is effective at enhancing pedestrian skills, including being more vigilant so that they reduce the likelihood of being involved in a road traffic collision.
As the conference was also about community safety, there were also talks that ranged from a company that sells a wide array of VR hardware; useful tips on how to create VR videos from James Evans, the Founder of First Car and highly vivacious host; a tutorial for using VR software (without requiring coding knowledge); an impassioned and arguably beautiful talk about using VR for exploring gang culture with young people to reduce the likelihood that youths engage in gangs; and an equally inspiring talk about how VR can be used for therapies. There are clearly plenty of benefits of using VR, not just for road safety, but for the wider community. As VR continues its onward march forward, further applications may arise, and current applications will become more sophisticated. However, even within the current state of VR, it certainly seems promising for advancing road safety.
We return now to the statement that this article started with:
Turn on, tune in, drop out.
The adage originates with a meaning of pure escapism, with no positive consequence. However, we have gone beyond that now with VR. Yes, escapism from ordinary reality is fundamentally at the core of VR, but it is escapism with a purpose. With it, you can experience a dynamic classroom experience. You can experience the consequences of unsafe driving whilst retaining no potential of physical harm. You can train others in a more accessible and arguably more engaging manner. You can even change policy.
In sum, VR is undeniably a conduit for escapism to a different environment. But with the socially beneficial functions VR can have, it means that when we eventually return to ordinary reality, we potentially find ourselves within a world that is slightly better than it was before we left. I’m confident that eventually, we will not want to drop out anymore because actual reality will not be something we will want to escape from.
 Plechatá, A., Sahula, V., Fayette, D., & Fajnerová, I. (2019). Age-related differences with immersive and non-immersive virtual reality in memory assessment. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1330.
 Elliott, M. A., & Armitage, C. J. (2009). Promoting drivers' compliance with speed limits: Testing an intervention based on the theory of planned behaviour. British journal of psychology, 100(1), 111-132.
VR for Education:
- Allcoat, D., Hatchard, T., Azmat, F., Stansfield, K., Watson, D., & von Mühlenen, A. (2021). Education in the digital age: Learning experience in virtual and mixed realities. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 59(5), 795-816.
VR for Driving Interventions:
- Large, D. R., Burnett, G., Salanitri, D., Lawson, A., & Box, E. (2019, September). A Longitudinal simulator study to explore drivers' behaviour in level 3 automated vehicles. In Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications (pp. 222-232).
VR for Hazard Detection:
- Agrawal, R., Knodler, M., Fisher, D. L., & Samuel, S. (2017, September). Advanced virtual reality based training to improve young drivers’ latent hazard anticipation ability. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 61, No. 1, pp. 1995-1999). Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
VR for Driving Instructors:
- Sandberg, M. K., Rehm, J., Mnoucek, M., Reshodko, I., & Gundersen, O. E. (2020, June). Explaining traffic situations–architecture of a virtual driving instructor. In International Conference on Intelligent Tutoring Systems (pp. 115-124). Springer, Cham.
VR for Vulnerable Road Users:
- von Sawitzky, T., Wintersberger, P., Löcken, A., Frison, A. K., & Riener, A. (2020, April). Augmentation concepts with HUDs for cyclists to improve road safety in shared spaces. In Extended Abstracts of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-9).
- Bindschädel, J., Krems, I., & Kiesel, A. (2021). Interaction between pedestrians and automated vehicles: Exploring a motion-based approach for virtual reality experiments. Transportation research part F: traffic psychology and behaviour, 82, 316-332.
- Robinson, T. (2019). Implementation of a Virtual Reality Teaching Tool Among Child Passenger Safety Technician Candidates. Trevecca Nazarene University.
VR for Public Services:
- https://west-midlands.police.uk/news/street-racers-narrowly-avoid-jail-latest-road-menaces-snared-operation-herculesVR for Therapy
VR for Improving Social Care:
- Kaussner, Y., Kuraszkiewicz, A. M., Schoch, S., Markel, P., Hoffmann, S., Baur-Streubel, R., ... & Pauli, P. (2020). Treating patients with driving phobia by virtual reality exposure therapy–a pilot study. PLoS One, 15(1), e0226937.
VR Hardware & Software: