Young drivers talk their way to safety

The student subjects of the AA Driver Education Foundation and University of Waikato young driver study may be heading home now, but the work is just beginning for Dr Robert Isler.

12 October 2006

Young drivers talk their way to safety

The senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Waikato conducting the ground-breaking study is left with reams of data to unravel, and hours of film to watch.

The film comes courtesy of an innovative eye-tracking device used to test the effectiveness of the commentary training each student has undergone.

Young drivers tend to concentrate on the road immediately in front of the car instead of searching and scanning for hazards.

They also tend to ignore hazards, underestimate the risk they pose – or incorrectly evaluate their own capability to respond appropriately.

Commentary training gets a student to talk their way through a drive, verbalising hazards and what they’d do about them. Isler’s study imported Jennifer Miller, a commentary expert from the Transport Training Centre in Adelaide, South Australia.

“I give them a demonstration,” Miller says, “then they drive and I’ll point out what they are missing, and I’ll slowly add things in. I include not only what to look for – rubbish bins on the kerb, say – but why: they might blow into the road, they might hide a stray dog or a small child that could run into the road.”

“Verbalising the hazards they spot proves they’re scanning widely, that they know not only what’s in front of them but what’s behind, and what evasive action they could safely take. It’s all ‘what if’, and ‘what would you do if.’”

Evaluating the result is where Isler’s eye scanner comes in.

“Only three degrees of our visual field has high visual acuity, which is why it’s important to scan. We want to see good eye scanning after the commentary, and the SensoryMotoric Instruments scanner we brought in from Germany allows us to objectively evaluate what each driver is doing.”

The scanner uses twin miniature cameras mounted on a bicycle helmet. One is trained on the driver’s eye, and one on the road ahead.

“There is no doubt that commentary driving changes their eye patterns,” Isler says.

The training has certainly improved the scanning ability of Isler’s student subjects – as was proved at a ‘commentary idol’ competition held at a Civic reception to welcome the AA Driver Education Foundation and the University of Waikato team to Taupo.

The students were pitted against each other, talking through the hazards presented in a video drive through Taupo’s town centre.

The top three students would win a helicopter ride donated by Toby and Cushla of Clark and Jolly Helicopters, Taupo – so competition was fierce. Best commentary on the night came from Arron Buchanan (Upper Hutt), Meredith Turnbull (Dunedin) and Leigh Hadcroft (Te Puke).

But will the young drivers remember their new skills after the excitement of the ride has worn off? Isler will follow 16 of his student participants via black-box data recorders fitted in their own cars, and will fully evaluate all participants at six and 12 months.

Dr Isler’s study aims to show that through simple training interventions young drivers can learn to correctly identify driving hazards, assess their risk, and decide on an appropriate response.

Such higher level driving skills may not be learned alongside more practical lessons, and are harder for young people to grasp given the frontal lobe of their brain, which deals with skills like hazard perception and risk management, doesn’t develop fully until they’re 25.

“Our main focus is everything that can decrease risk-taking,” Isler says, “making people better able to drive to the conditions because they are better able to recognise and evaluate the risk.”

“I’ve been especially impressed by the effect of the road commentary,” he says. “They improve within just a few hours, and they start to realise what’s going on around the whole car.”

“Young people’s hazard detection times are 30% less efficient than for older drivers, and commentary training improves that speed.

For more photos contact:

For more information contact

Peter Sheppard
Chief Executive
AA Driver Education Foundation
T. +64 4 931 9968
M. +64 21 222 6964


Dr Robert Isler
Traffic and Road Safety Research Group
University of Waikato
T. +64 7 838 4466 ext 8401
M. +64 274 188 423

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