How Using Virtual Reality Helps to Make Real-World Roads Safer
Making changes to roadways can be a controversial issue. Seemingly a simple matter, adding a traffic light or changing a traffic pattern can raise many questions in the impacted community.
So when the North Jersey Transit Planning Authority (NJTPA) recommended replacing a few traffic lights and stop signs with roundabouts, they wanted to be prepared for the questions that would come.
They had data to support the decision: statistics from the Federal Highway Administration clearly showed that when used properly, roundabouts can decrease the number of traffic accidents and reduce traffic congestion. However, they knew some would see the removal of a stop sign as counterintuitive when it comes to traffic safety. The NJTPA needed something more impactful to educate the public on the planned changes.
So the NJTPA partnered with NJIT professors to develop a virtual reality tool to help local officials and the public experience the new intersection before its implementation.
Margarita Vinnikov, an assistant professor in the informatics department within the Ying Wu College of Computing used traffic data supplied by NJTPA to create a virtual reality simulation of the intersection at North Haledon Ave. and Manchester Ave. in Passaic County. This intersection is one of eight the NJTPA plans to convert to roundabouts and, according to NJTPA’s statistics, is the most accident-prone intersection for traffic in Passaic County.
To make the experience more realistic, Vinnikov designed the simulation to include traffic patterns and speeds provided by the NJTPA and added options to experience driving at different times of day and during different weather, ranging from rain to snow to a sunny day.
“We make the experience very personal,” Vinnikov said. “The fact that you are actually behind the wheel, in the car and see how other cars approach you, makes it much more real.”
She added that the VR simulation also offers a pedestrian angle so a resident can experience what they would see from a nearby sidewalk, watching the traffic flow.
“It’s very different than seeing a top view sketch,” she said.
Vinnikov said the virtual reality simulator can be experienced in three different ways:
-An online application so residents and public officials can view the demonstration from a laptop or smartphone,
-On a large projection screen at a public hearing or gathering,
-Or, the most interactive option, using an Oculus Virtual Reality Headset where a resident can “drive” on the road, experiencing how the intersection would be different with a roundabout.
Richard Cippoletti, NJTPA senior manager analytical and planning tools, said that the VR demonstration has been very well-received at NJTPA. “It provides a really good visual perspective and it’s a useful tool for the agency to educate the general public,” he said. “Working with NJIT, we want to continue to develop very realistic systems that the public can relate to.”
Cippoletti said preparations are already underway for NJTPA’s next project with NJIT. That project will focus on reducing distracted driving and is expected to begin soon. Vinnikov is currently recruiting participants to take part in user studies for the new project. NJIT students interested in taking part in a driving study should reach out to Vinnikov at firstname.lastname@example.org.