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The Promise of VR Headsets: Validation of a Virtual Reality Headset-Based Driving Simulator for Measuring Drivers’ Hazard Anticipation Performance

The objective of the current study is to evaluate the use of virtual reality (VR) headsets to measure driving performance. This is desirable because they are several orders of magnitude less expensive and, if validated, could greatly extend the powers of simulation. Out of several possible measures of performance that could be considered for evaluating VR headsets, the current study specifically examines drivers’ latent hazard anticipation behavior both because it has been linked to crashes and because it has been shown to be significantly poorer in young drivers compared to their experienced counterparts in traditional driving simulators and in open road studies. The total time middle-aged drivers spend glancing at a latent hazard and the average duration of each glance was also compared to these same times for younger drivers using a VR headset and fixed-based driving simulator. In a between-subject design, forty-eight participants were equally and randomly assigned to one out of four experimental conditions – two young driver cohorts (18 – 21 years) and two middle-aged driver cohorts (30 – 55 years) navigating either a fixed-based driving simulator or a VR-headset-based simulator. All participants navigated six unique scenarios while their eyes were continually tracked. The proportion of latent hazards anticipated by participants which constituted the primary dependent measure was found to be greater for middle-aged drivers than young drivers across both platforms. Results also indicate that the middle-aged participants glanced longer than their younger counterparts on both platforms at latent hazards, as measured by the total glance duration but had no difference when measured by the average glance duration. Moreover, the difference in the magnitude of performance between middle-aged and younger drivers was the same across the two platforms. There were also no significant differences found for the severity of simulator sickness symptoms across the two platforms. The study provides some justification for the use of virtual reality headsets as a way of understanding drivers’ hazard anticipation behavior.