GMU speedometer alerts drivers to appropriate speeds for inclement weather

By Holly Hobbs
Fairfax County Times
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 9:25 PM

Doctoral students at George Mason University think they have created a lifesaver.

A team of five psychology students at the university spent the past two years studying driving habits during inclement weather and created a speedometer that alerts drivers to appropriate speeds when traveling in snow, rain and other hazardous conditions.

"Wet weather is deceptively dangerous," said David Kidd, 26, a fifth-year doctoral student. Speed limits, he said, are based on optimal weather conditions but neglect to give recommendations to drivers when road conditions deteriorate.

By studying national crash statistics and conducting tests, the team found that most drivers decrease their speed in rain and snow but not enough to mitigate crashes.

Last winter, Virginia State Police reported about 250 weather-related crashes in Northern Virginia.

From Feb. 5 to 8, state police reported 193 weather-related crashes and 550 disabled vehicles as a result of storms in Fairfax County and neighboring Virginia jurisdictions. Overall, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles reported 3,414 crashes and 11 fatalities during last winter's storms.

According to the National Weather Service, inclement weather plays a significant role in about 100 fatal crashes per year in the country.

Using existing technology, but wielding it for their own use, Kidd and his fellow GMU students created a new kind of speedometer - Speed Limits for Inclement Conditions, or SLIC, which recommends speed thresholds during less-than-ideal conditions.

Students conducted their research using a computer simulator with a steering wheel and a video game-like program that allowed them to manipulate weather conditions while testing drivers' reactions. Students used school resources and free aid from Realtime Technology, a Michigan-based company specializing in vehicle dynamics and graphic simulation and modeling, to run their study.

Student Dan Roberts, 27, said SLIC uses optical road sensors to distinguish dry roads from water, ice and snow; traction sensors, a GPS receiver to determine the ruggedness of the road; and pattern recognition, which tracks legal speed limits. He said SLIC's success is reliant on an easy-to-read display that would fit into an existing auto instrumentation panel. SLIC uses red and yellow lights to warn of dangerous road conditions and includes two down arrows, which alert drivers to adjust their speed.

"We're not reaching for the stars here," Kidd said. "The sensors that we talked about to include with this are all available now. They may not be available in your Ford Focus, but they usually trickle down within five years. . . . This would be standard safety."

AAA spokesman John Townsend said the GMU students' idea is something he has not seen before.

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