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Midday, July 15, 2011, Shirley Martin walked out of her Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office to conduct a routine road test. She never came back. The seven-year employee died from injuries sustained in a crash when the customer behind the wheel confused the accelerator pedal with the brake. This tragic crash, and other alarming incidents that pose threats during on-road tests, served as a catalyst for Virginia DMV's participation in a study that researchers say can save lives.

The University of Virginia (UVA) Driving Safety Laboratory is conducting research into whether driving simulator technology can fairly and objectively evaluate a person's driving ability compared to an on-road driving exam. The Virginia General Assembly approved funding in 2012 for DMV to join UVA in the study at two DMV customer service centers in different parts of the state, Fairfax in northern Virginia and Charlottesville near Thomas Jefferson's university.


"Today, on-road testing varies from location to location. In the suburbs, drivers experience less traffic; in cities, drivers are tested on congested roads with more street signals and signs," said Virginia DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb. "In the future, simulation testing would allow DMV to standardize road tests for all drivers and assess driver performance on a variety of road environments regardless of where in the state testing actually occurs."

According to UVA, the sophisticated driving simulator is similar to flight simulators that commercial airlines routinely use to train and assess pilots. Simulators, located in partitioned areas of the DMV customer service center lobbies, are staffed by UVA research assistants who administer simulator tests, solicit driver feedback about how the technology compares to actual driving, and collect data regarding each test-taker's ability to accurately maneuver in the simulated environment. Results from the simulator are confidential and used only for research purposes and are not shared with DMV or insurance companies.

On July 12, 2013, Virginia DMV and UVA demonstrated the simulator for two Virginia General Assembly members, Delegates Joe May (R-33rd) and Tom Rust (R-86th), AAMVA's Neil Schuster and Ian Grossman, and NHTSA's Beth Baker. Driving the simulator is open to volunteers age 18 and older either as a walk-in or by appointment. Each participant signs a release form prior to the testing which takes about 40 minutes. DMV front-counter employees inform customers of the opportunity to participate in the study either before or after they conduct their DMV business. Customers opting to take the virtual test drive before their DMV transaction are given priority service upon completion of the assessment.

After testing for 12 to 24 months, UVA will confidentially review the participants' DMV records of collisions and citations to determine to what degree performance on the simulator predicted those who subsequently had driving mishaps.

Commissioner Holcomb added, "On-road tests can be dangerous. If driving simulator technology can be affordable and effective, the tool's use is worthy of exploring for the safety of DMV employees, customers, and other people sharing the road."


Check out the video below to see the virtual driving simulator in action: