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Vehicle safety centre studies most vulnerable: kids, teens, seniors

Sandy Di Felice


For as long as cars have been on the road, auto makers have worked to make driving safer. With technology evolving more rapidly than ever, we are finding new ways to improve vehicle safety.

Toyota launched a collaborative safety research centre (CSRC) with leading North American universities, hospitals, research institutions, federal agencies and other organizations to work to get closer to eliminating the risks involved in driving. The group is attempting to better understand the complex dynamics among vehicles, drivers and traffic environments. The objective is to promote industry-wide research focused on reducing the number of traffic fatalities and injuries on North American roads.

CSRC has adopted an "open" approach that stresses partnership and transparency, rather than developing proprietary technologies that only benefit a single auto maker.

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For example, at the University of Toronto, the research centre is in the midst of a multiyear study to determine what type of feedback from a vehicle is most effective in inhibiting risky driving behaviours.

The school's industrial engineering professor, Birsen Donmez, for one, has been granted three years of funding to investigate driver feedback systems, which warn drivers when they are behaving dangerously, with features including on-dash warning lights and auditory alarms.

Donmez's research is devoted to learning more about how drivers react to feedback systems, and discovering what kinds of technology are the most effective in alerting and motivating people to drive safely. "Feedback is currently not tailored to the individual and is not provided consistently," she says. "But emerging vehicle technology, such as eye trackers, can be used to improve responses to road events and inhibit potentially risky behaviours such as not focusing on the road."

U of T has also acquired a new vehicle-simulator facility, which will allow researchers to test drivers' reactions in a properly controlled environment. After the most promising driver feedback systems have been identified, they will be prepared and deployed for on-road testing.

The CSRC's current emphasis is on children, teens and seniors – the three most vulnerable groups on the road.

With regards to seniors, road safety is becoming increasingly urgent as its share of the population will rise dramatically in the coming years. In Japan, 20 per cent of the population is at least 65 years old, compared with 13 per cent in Canada and the United States. As a global auto maker with major presence in both Japan and North America, our company's research in both regions will benefit consumers around the world.

Another important CSRC project is the study of abdominal injury patterns in U.S. crashes. Data was pulled from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the National Automotive Sampling System and the Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network. The researchers, including Warren Hardy and Meghan Howes of Virginia Tech, used the data to examine detailed crash reconstructions and medical records from more than 1,000 individual collisions.

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The team found that abdominal injuries do not appear to be affected by age in the United States, and similar research from Japan has also come to this conclusion. It was also determined that seat belts are effective in preventing many injuries, including those of the abdomen. While it may not be immediately evident, the researchers' comprehensive data analysis offers some valuable practical applications.

For example, governments and trade groups can design crash dummies better capable of measuring the types of abdominal injuries that occur in the real world. In the United States, the NHTSA is developing a new front-crash dummy to replace the current "Hybrid III" model. This new dummy, called THOR, has the capability for advanced sensing of abdominal injuries. Based on the results of the CSRC study, these dummies can be used to better predict the types of injuries.

Vehicle manufacturers can develop new restraint systems that enhance the protections currently offered to customers. In that vein, a secondary CSRC project was conducted with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute to study the effects of age on driver posture and seat-belt fit.

Those results, combined with the crash injury research from the Virginia Tech study, have suggested that some North Americans may not know how to properly wear a seat belt to provide the maximum benefit. This highlights the importance of another CSRC focus: educational outreach. People need to better understand how the lap belt should be worn low and tight below the waist. The CSRC has already begun discussions to develop a larger educational campaign to deliver this message broadly.

Our company's goal is to foster unprecedented research collaboration to help advance auto safety in North America. The CSRC is one way to help see through our vision of providing the safest and most responsible ways to move people.

Guest columnist Sandy Di Felice is director of Toyota Canada Inc., headquartered in Toronto. More information at

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