Driving: An Ideal Task for Assessing Human Behavior

When you think about how to use a driving simulator, what immediately comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you probably automatically think about two things: using the simulator to train new drivers, or using it to assess whether or not a driver should be allowed back on the road.

Stop and consider using driving tasks to assess human behavior.

Those are both great ways to use a driving simulator, but really, they’re barely scratching the surface of how useful a simulator can be. Driving (and by extension driving simulation) is an ideal task for behavioral assessment and research.

Here are some of the many reasons why the driving task is ideal:

  • Driving is a familiar activity. Even people who have never driven a motorized vehicle understand the basic concept of driving. They’ve seen others do it, they’ve experienced it during game play, or they’ve seen it in movies or TV shows. Because it’s familiar, you’re not “tricking” the participant by giving them a task they’ve never seen or experienced.
  • For those of us not involved in special ops or working as Hollywood stuntmen (in other words, for most people), driving is the most difficult, and dangerous, task we perform every day. That means driving has a high ecological validity – poor driving performance has real-world impact and consequences for everyone.
  • Driving stresses almost all driver modalities. It’s a deceptively complex task that uses sensory, perceptual, cognitive, and other motor systems. To drive effectively, a driver needs vision, hearing, psychomotor functioning, proprioception, haptic functionality, and more.
  • In addition to the sensory modalities, driving requires good cognition, executive functioning, executive decision making, memory, and other brain activities. Non-driving tasks only require a few of those capabilities at a time, but driving requires them all at once making it the most complete and familiar task for assessing behavior.
  • Driving = Mobility = Freedom. In many parts of the United States, and to a lesser extent the world, driving is a necessary and essential part of life. It allows people to get out of the house and experience the real-world. Therefore, driving tasks have an inherent motivation built into them. Drivers want to keep driving!

An Important Reminder

An important thing to remember is that although driving is an ideal task, it does not have to be the primary, or even secondary, task. It could even be tertiary, if desired! Your primary tasks don’t have to be directly related to driving, but putting your tasks within a driving context immediately provides the benefits listed above.

Now that you can see the benefits that using a driving task provides, the real question is: what is the best way to implement the driving task to get insights into human behavior?

The solution? Use a driving simulator.

Yes, it’s possible to evaluate human behavior by conducting road drives, but there are definite advantages to using a simulator instead:

  • Driving scenarios in the simulator are just like real life – but without risking personal harm.

    Safety, safety, safety! Driving simulation eliminates all on-road driving risks, along with the costs associated with them. Sure, on-road driving is a more natural and realistic experience, but roadways are unpredictable (and drivers even more so). In a simulator, drivers and roadway environments can be just as crazy as in the real world, but no one gets injured in a virtual environment.

    Driving simulators get rid of real-life drivings risks (like this road!).

  • Better data collection! Using a driving simulator provides objective, accurate, repeatable, and validated data collection. When you design a driving scenario, you know what will happen and when it will happen every drive. If we could predict this during real-world driving, accidents would be a thing of the past! Additionally, you can create situations that you might not be able to find (or would not want to experience) on an actual road. And you can collect data that would be impossible to obtain during a road drive.
  • Convenience! Driving can be conducted in a local, controlled environment where things like the weather will only affect a driver’s ability to show up and participate. Within the simulation you can control all aspects of the driving environment, like weather, duration, and events.
  • You can work with people who can’t legally drive. A driving simulator is ideal for working with young non-drivers, the elderly who may have lost their license, and others who either never got their license, or had it taken away for some reason.

The bottom line, the next time you’re designing an experiment and need to gather data to assess some type of human behavior, consider putting it into a driving context!