Traffic at 30 mph is too fast for children’s visual abilities, scientists reveal

November 26th, 2010 by Royal Holloway University of London

To coincide with Road Safety Week new research has been published by researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London that reveals that primary school children cannot accurately judge the speed of vehicles travelling faster than 20 mph.

The researchers measured the perceptual acuity of more than one hundred children in primary schools, and calculated the speed of approach that they could reliably detect. The results suggest that while adult pedestrians can make accurate judgments for vehicles travelling up to 50mph, children of primary school age become unreliable once the approach speed goes above 20mph, if the car is five seconds away. Professor John Wann, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, who led the research, says: “This is not a matter of children not paying attention, but a problem related to low-level visual detection mechanisms, so even when children are paying very close attention they may fail to detect a fast approaching vehicle.”

The researchers are now looking at the potential for using virtual reality systems to make children more aware of the errors that may occur, but Professor Wann stresses that the simplest solution lies in traffic regulation: “These findings provide strong evidence that children may make risky crossing judgements when vehicles are travelling at 30 or 40mph and in addition the vehicles that they are more likely to step in front of are the faster vehicles that are more likely to result in a fatality. Travelling one mile through a residential area at 20mph versus 30mph will only add 60 seconds to your journey time – we encourage drivers to take a minute and save a child’s life”.

The study, which is published in the international journal Psychological Science, is part of a larger project sponsored by the ‘Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), in order to understand the perceptual factors than can lead to pedestrian accidents. The research group has recently published brain imaging research in the Proceedings of the Royal Society to show that some of the key components for detecting collision events lie at the brain-stem level, which is a low-level early detection system, similar to that found in other animals, such as pigeons.

Royal Holloway’s research group ran demonstrations of their research studies in the London Science Museum over the summer where 500 visitors tried their tests. Related ongoing projects include a study sponsored by The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) looking at the judgments of older drivers at road junctions, as well as a study looking at why motorcycles have a higher risk of being involved in accidents classified as ‘looked but failed to see’.

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