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USF installs cameras in drivers cars

Tampa drivers may be used to being photographed by red light cameras at intersections. However, a new national study will capture drivers’ actions on film from inside their own vehicles.

In an attempt to increase vehicle safety in the U.S., Congress approved the National Academy of Sciences launch of the Second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2), a federally funded $50 million study.

Achilleas Kourtellis, a researcher at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at USF, will help lead the Tampa portion of the nationwide study, which will install cameras in 3,100 drivers’ vehicles to observe them in their own environments.

According to the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, U.S. traffic safety has decreased compared to 20 other countries.

Maureen O’Leary, director of public information for the National Academy of Sciences, said that is due in part to increased safety regulations in other high-income nations.

“(Other countries) receive high-level support for more aggressive programs, such as losing licenses for speeding and stricter drinking and driving laws,” she said.

While Kourtellis said the study is not being conducted with any specific law changes in mind, the data collected from observing thousands of drivers between the ages of 16 and 75 over the course of three years could lead to major changes in highway laws, traffic rules and even the way roads and cars are designed.

“We hope to observe people’s reactions in different situations,” he said. “We will also see how often people use their blinkers and how often people speed, among other things.”

Kourtellis said there has “never been a study performed like this,” though smaller studies have been conducted in the past – usually involving groups of about 20 people in simulated environments.

The new study will be conducted in six cities throughout the U.S., including Tampa. Five video cameras installed in volunteers’ cars will continuously collect data when they drive. To protect the drivers’ identities, the data will be encrypted until it reaches a secure storage facility where researchers will begin going through it.

Researchers are hoping to study 450 volunteers in the Tampa area, the largest center of the study, Kourtellis said, and are currently studying 160. The study is opened to all licensed drivers and some of the cameras will be installed on campus at USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research.

According to the SHRP2 website, drivers will receive $500 yearly for volunteering in the SHRP2 program. The program also obtained a Certificate of Confidentiality from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to protect drivers in the event that the videos are asked for in court after a crash. Data can’t be used against a driver and courts will not be able to obtain the video, even with a subpoena.

However, Kourtellis said driving that endangers others, such as repeatedly speeding through red lights, may be reported to authorities. Drug use while driving or drunk driving may also be reported.

He said people who participate in the study will contribute to about half of a century’s worth of research and data, whether they are recorded changing clothes, applying makeup or talking on their cell phones. Kourtellis said he expects the data collected to be analyzed over the next 40 years to design highways more conducive to driving habits.

Yet, despite the anticipated progress made from the study, Kourtellis said the data will not allow researchers to accommodate all driving habits.

“We can design safe cars and safe roads,” he said. “But as long as we have people driving, there will be problems.”