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Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelhpia and the Annenberg Public Policy Center assessed a computer-simulated driving exam that exposes new drivers to common crash scenarios. Credit: Max Mester

Including a virtual component in the driver's licensing process can help prevent skill deficits in new drivers, researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found.

In a report published on Oct. 5 in the journal Health Affairs, researchers assessed a computer-simulated driving exam that exposes new drivers to common crash scenarios and attempts to identify the skills they are lacking. The researchers found that the simulation is able to accurately detect deficits in ability, provide students with personalized feedback, and predict which drivers are likely to fail their onsite exams.               

The program has been implemented by CHOP,  the state of Ohio, and Diagnostic Driving, Inc., a CHOP company. Researchers looked at 4,643 paired virtual driving assessments and road tests and concluded that the program is feasible and advances safe driving.

“We believe the work we have done in Ohio could serve as a foundational model for the future of driving safety, where personalized virtual assessments beyond the on-road examinations are a gold standard in preparing adolescents prior to obtaining their licenses,” Flaura Winston, one of the founders of Diagnostic Driving, Inc., said.

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of mortality for adolescents, and crash risk is highest in the first two years after licensure. Among young drivers, 95.6% of crashes occur because of driver error. 

Current efforts by the team at CHOP and Annenberg Public Policy Center are working towards developing a simulation that can predict which drivers are most likely to crash in the first months after they get their driver's licenses. This sort of intervention would be key in reducing car crashes among adolescent drivers. 

The simulation also has the potential to replace some of the in-person aspects of the driver's licensing process that have been scaled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dan Romer, who directed the program with Winston.

"Now in Ohio they are just watching the driver drive around in a parking lot, which is nowhere near as rigorous as what they used to do," Romer said. "In such cases, we think this test could be used to replace the on the road exam".