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I Can (Still) Drive

Do you remember the day you got your driver’s license?

That little card with your photo and vital stats marked your passage into adulthood, responsibility and independence.

In retrospect, we might question the “adulthood” and “responsibility” parts, but there’s no denying the oh-so-empowering rush of independence.Driving Simulator

Although destinations change with a driver’s stages of life, the need for independence and mobility doesn’t diminish. A driver’s abilities, however, can and often do change like life itself, whether it’s from the natural aging process or from illness or injury.

A decade ago Clemson researchers created a laboratory to study some of the factors that impact driving ability. They used a driving simulator to examine nighttime driving, distractions, fatigue and related items. Then-psychology faculty member and Clemson graduate Johnell Brooks focused on aging drivers’ capabilities and limitations.

That experience has now taken Brooks from academic research and teaching to clinical application and economic development.

In other words, what started as a rather simple driving simulator lab in Clemson’s psychology department — not uncommon among universities — is now among leading international programs for patient rehabilitation in driving. And Clemson is the university at the forefront.

Inside and outside the vehicle

“We’re working to enable drivers to maximize independence as long as safely possible,” says Brooks. “It’s not only important to the individual, but to the family, our health care and transportation systems, and the public in general.”

Brooks’ multidiscipline group is designing and improving ways to assess the total driver, inside and outside the vehicle. They’ve brought together a power team of partners among universities, health care facilities, governmental agencies and industries.

The partners are developing new services, applications and technologies to improve the quality of patient rehabilitation and clinical effectiveness. And in the process, they’re creating marketable products and billable services requiring a skilled workforce.

Perhaps oversimplifying, this driving rehabilitation program is the perfect example of research, teaching, outreach and economic development — the exact missions on which Clemson was founded.

Power team

Research and teaching include students and faculty from psychology, engineering, computer science, architecture, health sciences and others.

Brooks collaborates with Paul Venhovens, BMW Chair in Systems Integration, at CU-ICAR (Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research) on the study of new engineering applications.

Findings are applied, measured and refined through application at medical facilities, chiefly the Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center where Brooks has a joint appointment with the Department of Internal Medicine.

Because of proven results, the program draws funding from the federal Department of Transportation, the National Science Foundation, Palmetto Health and Fullerton Foundation.

Hands on the wheel

Clemson’s 800-square-foot Driving Simulator Laboratory in Brackett Hall features a large wraparound simulator along with an authoring station for developing simulator scenarios. The simulator has highly detailed terrain and roadway elements.

It uses a 3-D audio system of engine and highway noises, scenario vehicles and Doppler effects. Scenarios include traffic signal control and interactive traffic with emergency vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians. Action triggers can be location-based, time-based or manually activated.

An identical simulator started the partnership with the Greenville Hospital System (GHS) in the geriatrics department. The team quickly realized that a radically different type of simulator was needed for clinical settings — one designed with input from both patients and clinicians.

As a result, Brooks worked with DriveSafety of Utah, the longtime partner of Clemson’s driving simulator program, to develop and manufacture a simulator specifically designed for clinics.

Now, patients at GHS’s Roger C. Peace Rehabilitation Hospital have access to this new and smaller DriveSafety driving simulator. And engineering innovations continue on the identical simulator housed at CU-ICAR’s Campbell Graduate Engineering Center.

Like the larger simulator, it offers a vivid mix of driving scenarios. One in particular calls for hand controls, especially helpful in rehabilitating driving skills in patients who can’t use pedals.

These smaller simulators are so promising for rehabilitation with wounded veterans, that 11 Army, Navy and Veterans Affairs medical facilities are already using them. The program recently expanded to Germany with the addition of a driving simulator at a Berlin hospital.

Growing profits generated from driving simulators and other related devices and applications go back into sustaining and advancing the program. And the potential is huge. In fact, DriveSafety, which is headquartered in Utah, is opening a satellite office in Greenville.

Potential workforce

Brooks understands how important a highly trained, compassionate workforce is in guiding patients, operating devices, assessing skills and accomplishing rehabilitation. As a result, her team has designed a training program for therapists in collaboration with the Greenville Hospital System and CU-ICAR.

In the meantime, Clemson students are gaining an inside track on becoming part of the industry, whether through health care, engineering or other academic paths. And each semester brings Creative Inquiry and internship opportunities.

“The end goal is to improve quality of life for people of this state and far beyond,” says Brooks, who is now an automotive engineering faculty member. “Clearly, the best way to accomplish it is through public and private partnerships among universities, health care facilities and industry. The economic development that goes along with it is both a necessity for sustaining the program and an additional benefit for the state.”

Originally Published by Liz Newall
Clemson World iPad 2011

Dr. Brooks Homepage
Clinical Driving Simulator
Vision Coach