University of Waikato team’s new research facility will help drive more ground-breaking measures for drivers .

New technology will let the country's leading road safety researchers get into the minds of motorists.

The University of Waikato's Traffic and Road Safety [Tars] research group has been instrumental in four key legislative changes since its inception in 1993, most recently the lowering of the alcohol limit from 80mg per 100ml of blood to 50mg.

Tars is made up of associate professors Nicola Starkey, Robert Isler, Samuel Charlton and John Perrone.

Their research has also seen restrictions on cellphone use for drivers and the minimum driving age being raised from 15 to 16.


That work had been carried out at different locations in the Waikato. Now it's all centralised and yesterday Associate Professor Isler and the rest of his team unveiled their new research lab at the university which allows them to create a more lifelike driving simulation.

The facility now features New Zealand roads on a bigger screen.

Special eye-tracker technology enables researchers to see what movement gets the attention of the driver.

"We always try to find practical applications that actually create real changes, to help to inform government policy and real changes so it's evidence-based ... These are all projects with significant outcomes and are supported by government agencies, NZTA, Ministry of Transport, ACC or the ACC research foundation.

"That's what really drives us, to find practical applications and really increase safety on the roads and save lives of people at the end."

Mr Isler said making the law changes seemed like a no-brainer to him, especially the drink driving levels. "They were very much affected, 0.80mg is a lot ... they had lots of cognitive effect in inattention on the steering, visual cues and situational awareness."

He believed people were now more aware about how much they could drink before driving.

"For me, ideally, it would be a zero limit, so that it is black and white and absolutely no drinking because now we can still drink a little but often we don't know what our threshold is."


However, one of the drivers in protecting motorists was creating safer, "self-explaining roads", where the motorist didn't have to think about what they were seeing.

"Where they're easy to grasp and change the behaviours of the driver without them having to think about it, it happens automatically."

Ideally he would like to see all roads made wider, with side barriers and wider separation of lanes.

"There's lots of features that you can't change, like trees [and] power poles ... but rural roads are very dangerous in New Zealand. They are not even and often have no shoulders ... it's not forgiving for any mistake."

Training wheels

Control room:

where the technicians sit and control the simulator. Talk to the participant via an audio line.

Driver simulation: Where participants sit in a car and drive on computer-generated simulations of real Kiwi roads, steering and braking as they would in a real car.

Mobile eye-head tracker: To examine where drivers focus their visual attention. Wearing the eye tracker on their head which tracks eye movements and determines where they fixate.

Fixed eye-head piece: Where the person sits with their head into the headpiece which is fixed on to the table. Allows researchers to follow eye movements and what they respond to.