Virtual RealityResearchers Use Virtual Reality to Teach Children to Cross the Street

A study by: David Schwebel, Ph.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham; Daniel Rodriguez, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Virginia Sisiopiku, Ph.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham
(STRIDE Project 2013-004S - Teaching Schoolchildren Pedestrian Safety: A Pragmatic Trial Using Virtual Reality)

Over 4100 American pedestrians are killed annually, and over 215,000 injured.  Globally, rates are much higher.

Children have particularly high rates for pedestrian injury, largely because they lack the cognitive sophistication of adults.  Crossing a street requires complex perceptual and cognitive capacity that develops through early and middle childhood but might be accelerated through training.

Current efforts to reduce child pedestrian injury risk are multi-faceted.  Traffic engineering, driver behavior, and adult supervision are critical targets.  Also critical, and the present focus, are interventions targeting children themselves.  Individualized training of children at roadside locations by adults is effective.  It offers children repeated practice at the cognitive-perceptual task of street-crossing, along with feedback about the success of crossings.  Such programs are laborious and expensive, however, especially for cash-strapped schools and community centers. 

An alternative is use of virtual reality to train children to cross streets.  Virtual reality offers the advantages of repeated practice without risk of injury, minimal adult supervision, and immediate feedback about crossing safety.  Virtual reality training can be tailored to children’s ability levels so that children encounter increasingly complex pedestrian environments as their skills improve.

The team's previous research with a virtual reality prototype found 7- and 8-year-old children gained pedestrian safety skills through six 30-minute virtual reality training sessions (Schwebel, McClure, & Severson, in press).  The current STRIDE-funded research has two primary objectives:

First, the researchers are developing a new virtual environment that is portable, durable, and user-friendly.  It will be constructed for delivery to schools or community centers, installation for use over a few weeks, and then transport to a new center.  The objective is to create an affordable system that can be integrated into a third-grade curriculum for a short health-focused unit.

Virtual Reality TeamSecond, the researchers are conducting a pragmatic trial to evaluate the effectiveness of using the virtual environment in school environments.  Children are currently being recruited from Hemphill Elementary School in Birmingham for pre-intervention testing.  The system will be placed in their school for three weeks, with the expectation that teachers permit each third-grader to use the virtual environment on six occasions (twice weekly), gaining valuable practice and feedback on their street-crossing safety.  Walking time, gender, and race will be pre-programmed to facilitate tailored training, and complexity of the street environment will increase with learning.  Following the school-based training, post-intervention testing will evaluate children’s learning.

Dr. Schwebel wishes to thank STRIDE for supporting of this multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional collaborative research, and they are very excited about the potential of virtual environments to reduce the burden of child pedestrian injury in the Southeast, nationwide, and globally.