Dr. Alexander Crizzle (PhD) is a gerontologist and assistant professor in the School of Public Health at USask. (Photo: Submitted)

USask accelerating road safety research

New funding is helping drive new research at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) into making better drivers and safer roads.

By James Shewaga

Led by Dr. Alexander Crizzle (PhD), a gerontologist and assistant professor in the School of Public Health, the university is establishing the country’s first state-of-the-art road safety research hub. The new facility in the Health Sciences Building will feature high-tech car and truck simulators to assess and rehabilitate high-risk drivers, and will also be able to examine city street and highway design factors in road safety.

“I think there is a real nice opportunity to create a great research hub for road safety here,” said Crizzle. “We have the support from SGI (Saskatchewan Government Insurance) and many other partners and there is a lot of interest in using the simulators for various research studies. So we are excited about the possibilities that this will present.”

With funding from the likes of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Transport Canada, the Alberta Ministry of Labour, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Crizzle will accelerate his examination of all aspects of road safety with the new research hub. His work in developing systems to improve drivers and roads could help save lives and lead to significant financial savings for the health-care system.

“It is expensive to be involved in a crash, not just the medical costs for treatment and rehabilitation, workers’ compensation and disability, but also the costs involved with towing companies, police services, the fire trucks that come on scene and block the highway, and the cost of cleaning up the accident scene,” said Crizzle. “And of course you also have the social cost of being involved in a serious accident.”

Crizzle’s research with driving simulators goes hand-in-hand with his ongoing project on assessing aging drivers, which studies show are statistically more likely to be involved in accidents. In Canada, the number of drivers over the age of 65 is projected to double in the next two decades, increasing the impact and importance of Crizzle’s new research endeavours.

“Driving has become such an automated activity that we don’t often think of the potential implications if we can’t drive safely,” he said. “It’s a fascinating topic because we know when people lose their license to drive, the impact can be devastating. So it’s important to try to keep people driving safely as long as possible, to allow them to maintain their independence for as long as they can.”

The first step in the process is assessing and improving the skills of at-risk drivers via the simulators, since those drivers will often shy away from official road tests in which they could be identified to lose their licenses.

“For assessing at-risk drivers, simulators are an excellent research tool because if something bad happens, it happens in a safe environment,” said Crizzle. “It allows us to work with people who have more severe conditions and see if we can improve their driving habits, or if they are at a level where they may have to stop driving. It also allows us to rehabilitate drivers who have already lost their licenses, for example, due to a stroke.”

Crizzle said the simulators can be synchronized with medical monitoring devises to assess driver’s physiological changes such as eye, brain and muscle movements, if they get nervous in traffic. They can also measure levels of distraction, test new crash avoidance and lane departure warning systems, examine the effects of medications, alcohol and cannabis on driving, and examine sleep deprivation and its effects on long-haul truckers.

Two years after the horrific crash involving a semi and the Humboldt Broncos team bus, researching intersection design and winter driving conditions could also lead to safer highways, Crizzle said.

“If you have ever watched that show Ice Road Truckers, you get a sense of what they are going through,” he said. “We will be able to test different driving conditions on the simulators and put them through various scenarios, not just as a way to test, but as a way to train.”

Crizzle said the new hub also offers the chance to collaborate with the City of Saskatoon on road safety, through the new Research Junction agreement between the university and city. From high-traffic intersections to adding bike lanes on city streets, Crizzle said the simulators can help stress-test projects prior to implementation.

“Absolutely, that might be a nice little partnership,” he said. “When the city proposes additional bike lanes, we could test the road design on drivers, bikers and pedestrians in the simulator lab before actually implementing it. It is a very cheap way to do research ahead of time that can actually influence those types of decisions.”

While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily delayed the set up of the new research hub, Crizzle hopes to get the green light to begin work in the lab in the coming months.