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Comparing drivers' visual attention at junctions in real and simulated environments

Robbins, Chloe J.; Allen, Harriet A.; Chapman, Peter


Chloe J. Robbins

Professor of Lifespan Psychology


Driving simulation is widely used to answer important applied research questions, however, it is vital for specific driving tasks to undergo appropriate behavioural validation testing. Many previous validation studies have used simple driving tasks and measured relatively low-level vehicle control. The purpose of the current study was to investigate whether drivers' visual attention at intersections with different levels of demand, are similar in the simulator and on the road. Unlike simpler driving tasks, crossing intersections requires complex interactions with other vehicles governed by sequences of head and eye movements that may not be accurately captured in a simulated environment. In the current study we directly compare performance at simulated junctions with the same participants' behaviour in a real car. We compared drivers' visual attention in a high-fidelity driving simulator (instrumented car, 360-degree screen) and on-road in both low and medium demand driving situations. The low and medium demand driving situations involved the same motor movements, containing straight on, right turn and left turn manoeuvres. The low demand situations were controlled by the road environment and traffic lights, whereas medium demand situations required the driver to scan the environment and decide when it was safe to pull out into the junction. Natural junctions in Nottingham were used for the on-road phase and the same junctions were recreated in the simulator with traffic levels matched to those that were encountered on the real roads. The frequency and size of drivers' head movements were not significantly different between manoeuvres performed in the simulator and those conducted when driving on real roads. This suggests that drivers' broad search strategies in the simulator are representative of real-world driving. These strategies did change as a function of task demand-compared to low demand situations, behaviour at the medium demand junctions was characterised by longer junction crossing times, more head movements, shorter fixation durations and larger saccadic amplitudes. Although patterns of head movements were equivalent on road and in the simulator, there were differences in more fine-grained measures of eye-movements. Mean fixation durations were longer in the simulator compared to on-road, particularly in low-demand situations. We interpret this as evidence for lower levels of visual engagement with the simulated environment compared to the real world, at least when the task demands are low. These results have important implications for driving research. They suggest that high fidelity driving simulators can be useful tools for investigating drivers' visual attention at junctions, particularly when the driving task is of at least moderate demand.


Robbins, C. J., Allen, H. A., & Chapman, P. (2019). Comparing drivers' visual attention at junctions in real and simulated environments. Applied Ergonomics, 80, 89-101.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date May 16, 2019
Online Publication Date May 25, 2019
Publication Date 2019-10
Deposit Date May 23, 2019
Publicly Available Date May 25, 2020
Journal Applied Ergonomics
Print ISSN 0003-6870
Electronic ISSN 1872-9126
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 80
Pages 89-101
Keywords Simulator Validity; Junctions; Eye Movements; Demand 38 39
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information This article is maintained by: Elsevier; Article Title: Comparing drivers’ visual attention at Junctions in Real and Simulated Environments; Journal Title: Applied Ergonomics; CrossRef DOI link to publisher maintained version:; Content Type: article; Copyright: © 2019 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.


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