Amy Xiong

A young adult, wearing an electrode net over his head, sits behind the driver’s wheel in the front half of a black sedan. The lights go down in the lab, and he is in a virtual world, surrounded on all sides by a detailed simulation of a city road as he starts to drive. In the room next door, a researcher is studying in real time how the teenager and his brain react to distractions on the road and how he learns to drive safely.

School of Medicine professor Federico Vaca has spearheaded the creation of Yale’s new Developmental Neurocognitive Driving Simulation Research Center, or the DrivSim Lab. Using a state-of-the-art driving simulator in conjunction with brain-imaging and eye-tracking technology, the DrivSim Lab will study driving behavior in adolescents and young adults. The center aims to investigate how young drivers learn to drive and how common risk factors, such as substance use and peer influence, affect the safety of their driving.

“We are focused on trying to make younger drivers safer sooner,” Vaca said. “We are vested in translating what we learn here into the real world — through education programs and intervention development.”

With the DrivSim Lab, Yale is the first medical school that has an emergency medicine department with a driving simulator, according to Vaca. The researchers plan to perform multiple studies to explore different areas of young driver safety, from studying the impacts of distractions to examining the social influence of peers on driving behavior.

According to Jia Wu, a scientist at the DrivSim Lab, the current pilot study at the lab seeks to investigate how distractions and cognitive load affect a person’s brain while he drives. In one experiment, the researchers will compare the neural responses of listening to a beep, which serves as a distraction, when a participant is driving and parking to controls without the beep.

About 15 people between the ages of 18 and 25 have participated in this study so far, said Barbara Banz, a postdoctoral associate in the lab.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation show that the number of fatal crashes in younger drivers has increased from 2014–16, according to Vaca. He added that alcohol-impaired fatal crashes in this population have also risen.

As an emergency physician at the medical school, Vaca noted the prevalence of injuries and deaths from motor vehicle crashes — the leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds — and explained that his group’s work can have a real impact on people’s lives.

Studying the driving habits of adolescents and young adults in particular is crucial, not only because most individuals learn to drive during their late teenage years, but also because the developing adolescent brain is vulnerable to risky driving behaviors, Banz said.

“Adolescence and young adulthood is a critical period for engaging in high-risk behaviors: risky driving being one example and drug and alcohol abuse also being prevalent during those times,” Banz said. “So we’re hoping to understand how other risk behaviors relate to brain function and driving behavior in youth.”

Vaca noted that young drivers must develop and retain their knowledge of a complex series of actions that are second nature to longtime drivers: making sure seatbelts and lights are on, looking forward all the time, scanning across the horizon, looking for potential hazards before they approach and looking to the left and right before making turns.

The researchers at the DrivSim Lab hope to elucidate how these young drivers learn and what aspects of driving they learn more quickly than others. They will use technologies to look at the activation of different areas of the brain, as well as to track eye movement in order to study how the brain functions when individuals are learning to drive. According to Vaca, this real-time integration of neuroimaging and eye-tracking glasses is rare among simulation labs.

“When someone is fully immersed into our driving simulator, we have the luxury of technologies to see where they’re looking and to see what part of the brain is being activated — and what that might mean for decision-making, reward and anxiety,” Vaca said.

The DrivSim Lab’s crown jewel is its immersive simulator. The simulator is able to replicate a variety of driving conditions, such as driving in urban environments or severe weather. The researchers can also test how drivers react to the actions of other pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers.

“Using these scenarios, we will be able to study driving behaviors during difficult and potentially unsafe situations, but in a safe environment with our simulator,” Banz said.

Vaca said he worked with members of the Yale Child Study Center, including professors Michael Crowley and Linda Mayes, over the past few years to fully realize the lab.

The DrivSim Lab is housed in the Yale Center for Medical Simulation.

Amy Xiong |