The Ford Motor Company Fund is hosting 300 teens at its state-of-the-art test track facility in Dearborn this week for a safe-driving seminar with one goal ? help younger drivers improve key driving skills that Ford research shows can dramatically reduce motor vehicle accidents.

Ford translated extensive research from its advanced driving simulator into the Ford Fund?s Driving Skills for Life (DSFL) program that teaches teens the necessary skills that could help prevent up to 60 percent of teen accidents.

?Ford has highly trained experts using state-of-the-art research tools to help people of all ages stay focused on driving,? says Susan Cischke, Ford group vice president of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering. ?We are confident that our efforts through research, education and innovation are helping drivers, particularly teens, to hone their driving skills while avoiding the risky behaviors that contribute to dangerous driving situations.?

Virtual Testing, Real Solutions

As part of its effort to reduce risky driving behavior, in 2001, Ford became the first auto manufacturer in North America to invest in a full-motion-based driving simulator, so it could lead the study of driver reaction and behavior in a controlled, safe laboratory setting.

The company?s state-of-the-art driving simulator, Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX), led to the development of the DSFL program and played a significant role in establishing industry guidelines for the design and operation of telematics devices in cars.

In 2003, Ford published one of its first driver distraction studies based on VIRTTEX research that quantified drivers? failure to detect safety-relevant events while doing visual or manual tasks such as retrieving voicemail on a handheld cell phone. The study revealed much higher levels of distraction among drivers doing such manual and/or visual tasks compared with those using a hands-free, voice activated interface.

?Our studies show that teens, particularly 16 and 17 year olds, are much more willing to take risks while driving, such as manually dialing on a mobile phone in situations that demand greater attention,? says Jeff Greenberg, senior technical leader, Ford Research & Advanced Engineering.

Although they are very quick in completing the task, they tend to take their eyes off the road during the entire operation unlike most adults who tend to glance back and forth between the road and the phone, Greenberg explained.

?Following the tests, a number of the teens readily admitted that they were driving badly in the simulation, and in some cases you could tell that it kind of scared them,? Greenberg says.

The teen driving experiment revealed that teens have trouble multi-tasking, for example, and are four times more distracted than adult drivers when using a cell phone while driving. Ford incorporated these findings in the DSFL program to help teens master four critical driving skills ? hazard recognition, vehicle handling, space management, and speed management ? that help address the majority of dangerous driving conditions.

DSFL aims to assist newly licensed drivers develop skills necessary for safe driving beyond what they learn in standard driver education programs. DSFL?s free educational materials for parents and educators complement state graduated licensing laws by allowing parents or guardians to take an active role helping young drivers improve their skills in schools or community settings.

Statistics support the need for the program as teens are much more accident-prone (20 percent of all crashes) than other age groups, yet only account for 7 percent of the total driving population. Additionally, parents can be influential educators but only 25 percent talk to their teens about safe driving ? more than 70 percent talk to teens about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

Reducing distractions

Ford also has worked with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers to develop driver-interface test methods and criteria to address driver focus and interaction with telematics and infotainment systems.

?Ford had a substantial role in the development of the Alliance guidelines,? says Dr. Louis Tijerina, Ford senior technical specialist. ?We helped define and implement design guidelines for the maximum down-angle that visually intensive driver displays should be positioned as well as limits to the visual demand of tasks that might be done while driving.?

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sponsored, 100-car naturalistic driving study published by Virginia Tech in 2006 showed that almost 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near crashes involved the driver looking away from the forward roadway just prior to the onset of the crash, Tijerina added.

?Ford is committed to addressing driver distraction in empirical, research-driven ways and implementing our findings in active safety systems and advanced infotainment systems throughout our vehicle lines,? says Tijerina.

The power of the voice

The Alliance telematics guidelines and Ford?s internal occlusion testing methodology (eyes-on/eyes-off) also proved instrumental in the development of Ford SYNC, the fully-integrated, optional, voice-activated, in-car communications and entertainment system. Basically, any manual cell phone tasks on the SYNC system that can?t be completed within two button clicks or within a few quick glances are locked-out when the vehicle is in motion, and can only be operated when the vehicle is parked.

Virginia Tech researchers concluded that manually dialing a handheld device (a task that requires looks away from the road) while driving was more than two-and-a-half times riskier than just driving. On the other hand, they found that simply talking/listening on a hand-held device (primarily a voice task) was not riskier than just driving.

?We took a conservative approach with SYNC,? said John Shutko, Ford technical specialist in Human Factors & Ergonomics. ?We reduced the number of manually operated options and optimized the system for voice control as the primary input for operation. The system is designed to keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.?