From a distance, transportation researchers at Virginia Tech are finding creative ways to continue educating teenage drivers, as well as those with more experience, on safe driving behaviors.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) is providing virtual demonstrations of its Sharing the Road with Trucks safety program to high schools throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Driver’s education students will be able to learn valuable defensive driving techniques, such as avoiding blind spots, through a four-part video series designed to supplement their instruction until they can resume their training in-person. The videos are also publicly available on YouTube and the Sharing the Road with Trucks website.

“This information doesn’t just apply to teen drivers. By posting the video series online, we hope it will have the potential to reach a much larger audience,” said Matthew Camden, senior research associate for VTTI’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety.

Funded by the National Safety Council and the Road to Zero Coalition, Sharing the Road with Trucks aims to teach high school students how to drive safely around commercial trucks. Over the past two-and-a-half years, the research team has traveled to high schools in Virginia, West Virginia, and Delaware, conducting 40 visits and reaching nearly 5,000 students. The program has gained recognition for its interactive safety demonstrations, which utilize VTTI’s tractor-trailer, cars, and traffic cones to demonstrate blind spots, following distances, and other driving concepts that might be tough for inexperienced drivers to visualize.

However, once the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, the team suddenly faced a roadblock. They had 17 demonstrations scheduled for the spring and summer and no way to conduct them as planned.

“It was a challenge. This program 100 percent relied on us traveling and meeting with students and instructors in person, but with the pandemic, we couldn’t do anything,” explained Camden. “We didn’t want to lose all this momentum that we had generated. So, we brainstormed: What could we do to meet our current deliverables and still get this valuable information out to students?”

After discussing with the National Safety Council, Camden and his colleagues Mark Golusky, lead research specialist, and Scott Tidwell, senior field research technician, decided to film a virtual demonstration on the Virginia Smart Roads testing facility and around Blacksburg.

Conducting a film shoot in accordance with physical distancing guidelines required careful planning. After completing the university’s COVID-19 training, the researchers implemented additional safety measures, including arranging separate times to pick up the dispatch radios from the Smart Road Control Room. The radios, which were left on a desk for the researchers, were disinfected before and after each use. The researchers also thoroughly cleaned the truck and the car that were used both before and after the film shoot. To ensure physical distancing, no other groups were on the Smart Road and only one person was allowed inside each vehicle.

“We kept hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies inside each vehicle in case we had to pass a radio or GoPro batteries from one of us to the other for any reason. Clean it when you hand it over, clean it when you hand it back. Keeping the separation between us added a little more time and planning, ultimately,” explained Mark Golusky, lead research specialist for VTTI’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety.

Despite these necessary precautions, the team discovered unique opportunities in their new teaching format. Rather than simply walking through their usual demonstration with a camera, the team opted to reenact common yet tricky interactions between cars and commercial vehicles, such as merging lanes. Camden, who drove the car, and Golusky, who drove the truck, wore GoPro cameras on their heads in order to depict each driver’s point of view.

Truck turns

A truck prepares to make a turn on a road. There is an arrow pointing to the truck's lefthand side mirror.
A common misconception is that truck drivers have greater visibility than car drivers. In reality, their visibility is limited, as depicted by the right arrow.

“I think the GoPro captured me looking in the mirrors of the truck and responding to what I was seeing pretty accurately. It will give the students a good point of view of what the driver would see at eye level,” said Golusky.

“It’s really going to give the students that firsthand perspective,” Camden added. “They can watch the video and say, ‘Oh. That’s what I would be doing in my car.’ It will make the demonstrations a bit more dynamic, in that aspect.”

The Sharing the Road with Trucks video series also features brief lectures and question and answer sessions interspersed throughout to encourage critical thinking.

When Tidwell notified the school systems about the new video series, many of the driver’s education coordinators he spoke to seemed excited to implement it.

“High school driver’s education students are kind of in a bad spot right now because they can’t go in for the classroom portion and they also can’t do the behind the wheel driving training. We hope this virtual option can help fill in that gap in the meantime,” he said.

Additionally, the lessons from Sharing the Road with Trucks can serve as a salient reminder for all drivers. Despite a reduction in traffic across the U.S. as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, the National Safety Council estimated a 14 percent increase in fatality rates per mile driven in March.

“Trucks are running all the time trying to keep grocery stores stocked and to keep medical supplies coming, so it’s possible that there may even be more interactions with heavy vehicles now compared to before,” he explained. “It’s really important for us to continue sharing the information so that all drivers can learn how to be safe.”

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At 55 mph, a tractor-trailer could drive the length of an entire football field before it is able to come to a complete stop.

Football field with VTTI logo on top and a graphic of a tractor-trailer on the top lefthand corner. At 55 mph, a tractor-trailer could drive the length of an entire football field before it is able to come to a complete stop.
At 55 mph, a tractor-trailer could drive the length of an entire football field before it is able to come to a complete stop.
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