New Research: An Innovative Simulator Evaluates Eye Diseases and Driving Performance

The University of California, San Diego School of Medicine is the first ophthalmology department in the country to feature a fully dedicated, high-fidelity, realistic driving simulator to evaluate the effects of visual impairment, such as glaucoma and macular degeneration, on an individual’s driving performance.

The UC San Diego driving simulator

The UC San Diego driving simulator
Source: UC San Diego Health System Newsroom

Located in the Visual Performance Laboratory of the Shiley Eye Center at UC San Diego, the simulator (pictured above) occupies an entire room. Drivers sit in a Ford Fusion cabin that is mounted on a motion platform and look out at a realistic cityscape with roads and traffic projected on large-screen panels with a 180-degree field of view.

The car cabin moves realistically and the scenes respond interactively to changes in direction, speed, acceleration, braking, and road conditions. Three adjustable rear-view mirrors also display simulated images of rear visibility.

More about the Driving Simulator and Visual Performance

According to Felipe A. Medeiros, MD, PhD, professor of ophthalmology at UC San Diego,

“We know that standard visual acuity or visual field tests may not provide enough information to evaluate whether a person is capable of driving safely. The driving simulator will allow us to assess visual performance in a realistic and demanding scenario, providing a much better evaluation of the impact of eye diseases on driving fitness.”

“One of the purposes of the simulator is to try to better evaluate and determine who is at higher risk for becoming impaired in their ability to perform everyday [driving] tasks. Those at higher risk may need to be treated more aggressively, whereas those at lower risk may be treated more conservatively.”

An advantage of the simulator is that driving skills can be tested under conditions that would be dangerous to test in real life. With the simulator, for example, it is possible to keep track of a driver’s ability to maintain lane position, negotiate a curve, and detect and avoid hazards, such as pedestrians crossing a street. The simulator can also recreate night driving and driving in heavy fog.

In addition, the simulator can be used to measure eye and vision changes over time, in order to better understand the progression of different eye conditions and their impact on visual performance and driving.

The National Eye Institute and Simulator Research

The first Shiley Eye Center patients to use the driving simulator will be the participants in a long-term National Institutes of Health: National Eye Institute study on eye diseases, headed by Dr. Medeiros.

Prior to entering the study, the participants have had their visual and driving performances evaluated on a smaller, lower-fidelity version of the stimulator. Researchers evaluated this data to identify components of computer driving scores that are most predictive of a person’s history of collisions, as recorded by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

“The research will now be expanded with the use of the new simulator, allowing the researchers to test a much larger number of situations in more realistic scenarios,” says Dr. Medeiros. “There are people who are driving who should not be and there are people who aren’t driving but could safely. The research on the new driving simulator will help us identify those at higher risk for being involved in crashes and provide better guidance to patients and interested parties.”

In addition, the research team plans to use the simulator to train drivers in ways to compensate for driving skills that have been diminished by age or disease. “There is evidence suggesting that about 50 percent of motor vehicle collisions are caused by deficits in the ability to process visual information and allocate attention while driving,” Dr. Medeiros said. “We may be able to train people to get better on how to perform these tasks.”

VisionAware will provide updates on this research as they become available.

Source: UC San Diego Health System Newsroom: Simulator Evaluates How Eye Diseases Affect Driving

Additional Driving Information