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How you drive makes a difference (Udrive)

The EU-funded ‘Udrive’ project is using the latest information and communications technologies (ICT) to observe human driving behaviour, with the aim of improving road safety and fuel efficiency.

© Udrive

Every year, tens of thousands of European citizens lose their lives in auto accidents. In 2011 alone, more than 30 000 people died on the roads, while many others were severely injured.

For more than two decades, the European Union, along with its Member States and the automotive industry, has been focussed on reducing road-transport-related fatalities and injuries, and while this has led to improvements there is still work to be done.

The newly launched Udrive project is taking road safety research right down to the human level, implementing the first large-scale, real-life driving observation study in Europe. Researchers will collect detailed and continuous information about the behaviour of drivers and passengers in cars and trucks and on powered, two-wheeled vehicles.

Udrive project coordinator Rob Eenink of the Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV) in the Netherlands explains, “In UDRIVE, we will observe hundreds of European car drivers, motorcyclists and truck drivers on a daily basis, in an unobtrusive way, using small sensors and cameras mounted in or on their vehicles.”

Eenink says new ICT developments now make it possible to observe ‘naturalistic’ driving behaviour, i.e. how people actually drive. These include sensors, cameras, and hardware and software for data handling, analysis and storage.

“Previously,” he says, “we had to use dedicated cars equipped with expensive instruments. Obviously, people behave differently in this kind of situation, especially with a researcher sitting next to them taking notes.”

With newer systems, he says, it is possible to learn a lot more about everyday driving and safety-critical events, for instance the role of distraction or interactions with pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. Affordability coupled with automation, he adds, means, “Now we can log hundreds of vehicle-years and record rare occurrences or events.”

With data collection planned in seven different regions in Europe, the results of Udrive will be used to develop new road safety measures to address distraction, risk-taking, human error, vehicle design and safer road infrastructure.

Asked how many people in the real world will benefit from this work, Eenink responds, “Everybody who is on the road, which is very nearly everybody.”

Counting the costs

The principle aim of this kind of work, of course, is to alleviate human suffering associated with road accidents, but the benefits for society, in terms of economic costs, are also likely to be significant.

“The cost of road crashes is around 2% of GNP in most countries,” explains Eenink. “For Europe this equals €180 billion. The measures that come out of Udrive could lead to real reductions in crashes, potentially saving billions of euros.”

As an example, Eenink cites the factor ‘inattention’. It has been estimated, he says, that 7% of car crashes are at least partly caused by drivers not paying attention, being occupied with or distracted by other things and without fatigue being involved.

“A better understanding of inattention may lead to dedicated educational solutions, new in-car systems, etc.,” Eenink says, “focussing on specific driving circumstances, such as road bends or in-car warning systems. Suppose this could eventually prevent half of all inattention-related crashes. This would save 3-4% of 30 000 European lives, i.e. 1000 people saved each year with an economic benefit of around €5 billion.”

Udrive will also compile data in relation to fuel consumption and exhaust emissions, as affected by driver behaviour. And Eenink says there could be commercial applications that would go towards strengthening Europe’s competitive edge in the road transport industry.

“None of this could have been achieved without the co-operation of our international partners and without the support we’ve received from the European Commission,” he says. “It is too expensive for one country alone to do this. But the road safety situation is also quite different in different regions of Europe, so it was also important to have a good distribution of partners and study sites.”

What Europe wants to do

In 2010, the European Commission published its road safety policy orientations for the current decade, i.e. from 2011 until 2020. A crucial element is the target of halving the number of road fatalities during this period. In addition, the European Parliament has agreed to strive for a reduction of serious injuries by 40% and of child deaths by 60%.

As for the environmental burden of road traffic, Europe is now targeting a 20% cut in carbon emissions as compared to 1990 levels by 2020. Eenink says Udrive stands to contribute to reaching all of these targets, while strengthening the competitiveness and efficiency of Europe’s economy.