UAB psychology prof develops virtual simulator to help kids learn to cross streets … – The Huntsville Times


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Pedestrian injuries are a leading cause of death in children in the United States and other countries, so a psychology professor and researcher at The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is using a virtual simulator to help children learn how to cross the street more safely. 

David Schwebel developed the device, which uses virtual reality to teach 7- and 8-year-olds safe street-crossing skills, according to UAB spokeswoman Katherine Shonesy. 

"Children using the simulator can learn whether they're safe or not safe, and learn those difficult skills of figuring out how fast that car is moving, how far away it is, and how quickly it will get to where they are," Schwebel said in a recent UAB news release. 

The simulator was first used at two local elementary schools – Hemphill Elementary School in Birmingham and Bluff Park Elementary School in Hoover. 

Schwebel developed the simulator using grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation after he realized that safe pedestrian behavior requires sophisticated cognitive-perceptual skills, skills which are still developing in children, according to the news release.

This summer, UAB is partnering with the YMCA of Greater Birmingham to allow the children at all local YMCA branches to use the device. 

Those branches will provide transportation for children to be able to use the simulator, which will be housed at the YMCA Youth Center in the Park Place neighborhood downtown. 

Schwebel plans to work with schools again this fall to get the simulator into more classrooms locally.

Schwebel's efforts may be particularly important given the danger faced by pedestrians in the Birmingham area.

A recent study ranked the six-county Birmingham-Hoover metro area as the sixth most dangerous for pedestrians out of the nation's 51 largest urban centers. The study was conducted by the National Complete Streets Coalition. 

Other research by Schwebel

Schwebel said in December that even adult pedestrians should avoid jaywalking, even if they think it will save them a few minutes. "The time you may save while jaywalking is not worth the risk," he said. "Plus, it's good for you to walk farther -- both for safety and for health." 

Schwebel said his research shows that when a pedestrian crosses a street illegally, he or she is "processing a lot of information about traffic all at once: distance, speed, what drivers will do, how they will behave."

Schwebel co-authored a study published in February showing that sleepy kids – that is, children with untreated excessive daytime sleepiness, or EDS – were twice as likely to be struck or nearly hit by a car, even when looking both ways before crossing the street.

He was also part of a study in 2012 which showed that college students crossing the street while surfing the Internet on a cell phone are more than twice as likely to be hit or have a close call as when they crossed the street without a distraction.

"I know it is kind of obvious," Schwebel said. "But obvious is different than having scientific proof. We can assume something -- but it's nice to have the evidence."

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