Teaching Schoolchildren Pedestrian Safety: A Pragmatic Trial Using Virtual Reality

UTC Project Information

Child pedestrian injuries are a leading cause of mortality and morbidity across the United States and the world, including the Southeastern U.S. One reason children have heightened vulnerability to pedestrian injury is because safe pedestrian behavior requires sophisticated cognitive-perceptual skills. Those skills are still developing among children.

Repeated practice at the cognitive-perceptual task of crossing a street may lead to safer pedestrian behavior. Virtual Reality (VR) offers a unique opportunity for repeated practice without the risk of actual injury. Recent results from the UAB’s NIH-funded Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) suggest a pedestrian VR effectively teaches 7- and 8-year-olds safe street crossing skills (Schwebel, McClure, and Severson 2013). A disadvantage of the recently-completed RCT is its structured experimental nature. Children trained in the VR did so in a laboratory, where they received individualized attention in a structured setting.

An alternative, to be implemented in the present study, is to train children at a community site, where an often more chaotic environment may lead to less individualized attention, less tailoring to children's ability, and less organized training administration. Such a trial, sometimes labeled "pragmatic" (Thorpe et al., 2009; Ware & Hamel, 2011), provides a more accurate and realistic assessment of an intervention’s efficacy than "sterile" lab experiments.

The research team proposes a pragmatic repeated-measures trial evaluating whether 7- and 8-year-old children learn to cross streets safely through training in a newly-developed VR pedestrian environment placed in a community setting. Data will be analyzed using linear mixed models that test behavioral change over time. It is expected that child pedestrians will have fewer virtual crashes and close calls with motor vehicles, will be more attentive to traffic, and will make quicker and more successful pedestrian crossing decisions following training in the VR.

This project is consistent with several STRIDE goals. It is interdisciplinary and inter-institutional, bringing together expertise from three departments (Psychology, Civil Engineering, City and Regional Planning) at two universities (UAB, UNC). It relates to the livability and safety themes of the STRIDE consortium and to USDOT strategic goals and priorities. Implications from the proposed project will be broad-reaching, including immediately-transferable information for education of children and those who supervise them. Finally, results of the study will guide workforce development of transportation professionals and decision-makers concerning strategies to reduce child pedestrian injury rates.

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