Meet the innovator using virtual reality to improve driver safety

Heavy goods drivers are among the beneficiaries of new safety training developed using virtual reality.

Commercial vehicles in Nottinghamshire were fitted with video cameras this summer to capture footage of the highway ahead, to be used in training material delivered by road safety company Esitu Solutions.

The company has developed bespoke training packages for employers whose drivers take part by donning virtual reality headsets. Participants are asked to identify perceived hazards around them, in order to assess their driving competency and determine the level of risk they pose behind the wheel.

One of the company’s two founders, Dr Victoria Kroll has tailored the training based on her own peer-reviewed papers about highway safety. She was also a guest of Connected Places Catapult at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany in May, as part of a cohort of firms from last year’s Transport Research and Innovation Grants programme identified as showing commercial promise.

“Hazard perception is one of the only higher-order cognitive skills that has been consistently linked in research to collision risk on the road. We know that people who perform worse on these tests are more likely to have a collision in the future.”
Dr Victoria Kroll, Co-founder, Esitu Solutions

Victoria’s training tool – developed alongside Esitu Solutions’ co-founder Professor David Crundall – immerses drivers in a 360-degree virtual world.

They can look around at junctions, check their blind spots and glance at mirrors as they would in a real vehicle. The virtual reality app plays the videos and collects responses, providing a score to help identify where additional safety training may be beneficial.

Aiming to reduce collisions

“One of the reasons we set up the company is we were convinced that our research could help to make a difference by reducing the number of collisions on the road,” she says.

Victoria points to national highway safety statistics that show a welcome fall in the number of road deaths over several decades, but which has plateaued over the last 10. The figure has settled at around 1800 deaths a year; save for a dip during the pandemic when there was less traffic on the roads.

“Something needs to be done because the number is not coming down,” she says. “Tools like ours can definitely help.” Victoria adds that training offered to drivers also encourages them to plan ahead to reduce the incidence of harsh accelerations and heavy braking.

“There is also some evidence to suggest that this type of training makes drivers less likely to engage in secondary tasks such as using a mobile phone while driving,” she adds.

From student to company co-founder

Victoria Kroll studied psychology at Hull University and was awarded a ‘PhD 1 + 3 studentship’ at Nottingham Trent, before continuing her studies to become a Doctor of Psychology. After finishing her course, she answered an advertisement from David Crundall at the University who was looking for someone to help develop a hazard perception test for fire engine drivers.

She secured the job and the pair worked together developing safety tests for a whole host of different drivers. “I always liked the idea of linking theoretical research to real world applications, and this position got me interested in road safety,” she says.

They demonstrated their hazard perception tests at road safety events and received enquiries from companies looking to buy a platform, which they did not have. So the pair decided to commercialise their research and sell training aids based on the use of virtual reality headsets and a web based application.

They received start-up funding from Innovate UK to form a spin-out company from the University. This was in March 2020. “It wasn’t the best time to start a company and the pandemic did set us back, so we actually started trading in May 2021.”

The innovation with their company, she says, is not in the use of virtual reality but the methodology and research that underpins the tests, including dozens of peer reviewed safety papers produced by Victoria and David.

Hazard tests explained

Each of the company’s hazard perception tests is filmed from the perspective of the driver, with situations of concern appearing on screen. As the action occludes, participants are given four options as to what happens next, or what they should do next.

The tests feature between 12 and 15 clips after which the driver’s employer is given a score which identifies those at higher risk, who are more likely to benefit from follow-on training. Clients include several logistics companies, construction firms and an NHS supplier.

Esitu Solutions was a recipient of two rounds of funding through the Transport Research and Innovation Grants programme, which is delivered by Connected Places Catapult on behalf of the Department for Transport.

“The latest funding is allowing us to carry out proof of concept work to develop hazard prediction tests for ambulance drivers. We have worked with a local ambulance service and private ambulance providers, using normal video footage rather than virtual reality,”
Dr Victoria Kroll, Co-founder, Esitu Solutions

Funding received through the programme last year was used to develop the training materials for HGV drivers.

The need to ensure that emergency response drivers have high levels of road safety training could soon increase with the prospect of new legislation being introduced, that could allow for a broader range of drivers to be exempt from speed limit regulations – such as those carrying blood for transfusions or mountain rescue professionals.

So called ‘blue light’ driving means qualifying drivers can exceed the speed limit, so will need to be alert to a greater range of hazards including the reactions of other motorists.

“The training we offer is all about situational awareness; being able to read the road properly and predict what is about to happen next – such as someone pulling out in front of you or crossing into your lane – to avoid a potential collision.”

“Connected Places Catapult has definitely offered lots of words of wisdom, which have been very helpful to the company’s development,” Victoria adds.

Future hopes

“Coming out of academia to set up a business involved a steep learning curve, but we seem to have managed so far,” Victoria says. For anyone following in her footsteps, she advises: “Just keep going; it’s not easy, but you learn as you go.”

Moving forward, Victoria says she is keen to develop international versions of the training and perhaps an augmented version of the software to allow virtual footage to be combined with real-life vision.

“We’re always thinking of different ways of delivering the training, expanding our catalogue of content and keeping it as fresh as possible,” she adds.

But no matter how successful the company’s systems, no piece of technology will entirely eliminate danger from the roads while motorists are responsible for driving, she says. “Driving for work is one of the most dangerous things anyone can do. Because you do it every day, dangers can be forgotten. We are trying our best to make conditions safer for professional drivers.”

Applications to take part in the Transport Research & Innovation Grants 2023 programme are open until 27 November.