This is a driver inside the car. The inset shows his eye movement.
Credit: Otto Lappi

All drivers know from personal experience that they must keep their eyes on the road when driving through curves. But how exactly does looking at the road guide the car through the curve? Cognitive scientist Otto Lappi’s dissertation at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of behavioral Sciences reveals new crucial aspects of eye movements in curve driving.

The starting point of the research was the article “Where we look when we steer,” originally published in Nature in 1994, and the driving models based on it. Lappi’s research challenges the dominant understanding of visual strategies in curve driving that has been prevalent in the field for two decades.

Lappi and his research group used new and innovative methods to analyze the minute and subtle eye movements that drivers make when driving through a curve. These optokinetic eye movements take only fractions of a second, and the driver is not aware of them. One of the sub-studies in the dissertation was the first academic research in the world to prove that these tiny eye movements, previously only found in simulation studies, were also apparent in natural driving situations. Another sub-study used analyses of these eye movements to examine how drivers predict their vehicle’s trajectory in a curve.

The results are based on revolutionary new eye movement analysis methods developed by the Traffic Research Unit at the University of Helsinki. Exact and reliable eye movement tracking during normal driving has been possible since the 1990s. However, the computational modelling methods for behavior in a natural environment have only in recent years developed to a level which enables the testing of the different theoretical models of the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying eye movements and steering in real driving environments.

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Even though the behavior and physiology associated with driving have been studied for nearly a century, many fundamental questions remain unanswered. This study provides new information on visual control in curve driving, and opens new ways to analyze the fundamental processes underlying the control of motion in natural environments both within and outside the sphere of traffic (e.g., sport).

More detailed information on the functional connections between the visual and motor systems in natural environments is significant for the development of technical assistive systems for drivers. From the perspective of traffic safety, the ways in which the driver obtains environmental information that is relevant to the selection of the driving direction and speed can be a background factor in run-off-road accidents particularly among young and inexperienced drivers.

Story Source: Materials provided by University of Helsinki. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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