A device that would attempt to increase automobile safety by emitting an audible signal when a driver is in a potentially dangerous situation may sound good in theory, but not all shoulder-hugging drivers are sure it is something they would appreciate.

Paul Wong
University Traffic Research Institute engineer Bob Ervin checks for possible obstacles in his rearview mirror. He and other University researchers are developing a crash warning system for drivers.<br><br>DAVID ROCHKIND/Daily

“I can see if you”re crossing into an oncoming lane, but it would bother me because I do hug the side of the road,” said LSA sophomore Lacey Babcock. Babcock added that she feels the new system will greatly benefit safety on the roads.

Researchers at the University”s Transportation Research Institute are developing such a device, called the Road Departure Crash Warning System.

The system”s developers said they hope to lessen the number of off-road accidents by warning drivers of hazardous situations before they occur. These types of accidents account for 41 percent of all in-vehicle fatalities.

“People need to recognize that road departures claim a bigger toll on life and property” than any other vehicle accidents, said project director and Traffic Institute engineer Robert Ervin. “The details of the design are there to satisfy the function. They haven”t existed before and are a synthesis of several elements.”

The system features video cameras and radar that will assess obstructions and possible hazards in front of the car and on the roadside, including guard rails, parked cars and potholes. It will also contain digital maps of U.S. roads and a Global Positioning Satellite system.

“As the vehicle goes down the road, the road system will consult the center and ask what the nature of the hazard is. We want the warning to always be perceived as credible,” Ervin said. He added that developers were concerned the audible signal may become a nuisance to driver”s with a tendency to flirt with the shoulder.

“If the roadside has potential hazards, the system will warn the driver a little earlier. If the situation is more benign, like roads through open farm land, then the system will let them go a little deeper on the shoulder, Ervin said.

“We want the warning to always be perceived as credible,” he added.

Drivers will be warned when they are driving too fast around curves or when outdoor temperatures drop below freezing, Ervin said. Both of these situations reduce the amount of friction between the tires and heighten the risk of the car departing from the road.

Traffic Institute Director Barry Kantowitz said he sees new technology allowing cars to manage the information they receive from this type of system.

“We”re not going to see a car drive by itself in the next 10 years,” Kantowitz said. “In Europe, researchers are putting speed governors in engines that slow down the car when it is going too fast.”

But this type of control doesn”t work with Americans, he added. Instead, he said American cars may see systems that turn off distractions, like cell phones and the radio, when driving in hazardous situations.

“We want to make driving safer and more convenient for the American population”, Kantowitz said.

The system, which is supported by a $10 million contract from the Federal Highway Administration, should be installed and tested in 11 test vehicles in about two years, Ervin said. The vehicles will most likely be passenger vehicles and will be driven by volunteer Michigan residents.

The TRI is also looking at the capabilities and limitations caused by human factors on driving and ways to improve safety, thanks to a $16 million contract with the FHA.

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