Features

Published: Monday September 2, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday September 2, 2013 MYT 8:10:38 AM

The Malaysian driving behaviour

Researcher Lim Phui Cheng spent 30 hours gathering footage on Malaysian roads to create a series of short video clips for use in the team’s hazard perception study.

Researcher Lim Phui Cheng spent 30 hours gathering footage on Malaysian roads to create a series of short video clips for use in the team’s hazard perception study.

It’s a long road, but scientists have begun looking at the cognitive processes underlying Malaysian driving behaviour.

ALREADY driving at the speed limit, you suddenly notice a pair of flashing lights behind you.

The black Proton Wira is moving at a frightening pace, and your heart begins to race.

In a mild panic you signal left, checking for a gap in the middle-lane traffic. As you pull over, however, a double-decker bus comes hurtling up the slow lane ...

Welcome to Malaysia, ranked one of South-East Asia’s worst when it comes to road safety. Estimates have put losses from road traffic accidents at an estimated 1.6% of the national GDP.

According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 2013 Global Status Report on Road Safety, Malaysia suffered 25 accident-related deaths per 100,000 of the population in 2010, compared to 3.6 deaths per 100,000 in Britain.

The bigger the red spot, the longer time the test subject spent looking at a particular point on the screen while watching driving simulation videos. This way, the researchers could see if participants were constantly scanning for hazards, or just focusing on the road ahead. 
The bigger the red spot, the longer the test subject spent looking at a particular point on the screen while watching driving simulation videos. This way, the researchers could see if participants were constantly scanning for hazards, or just focusing on the road ahead.

So what is it that makes Malaysian road users so ... unsafe?

It’s an intriguing question, and probably one we will never find the answer to. One research group, however, is taking baby steps towards understanding how Malaysians perceive hazards on the road.

It all began when Elizabeth Sheppard came to Malaysia to take up her position as an associate professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s School of Psychology.

Getting a car would make life considerably easier when travelling to and from the campus in Semenyih on the outskirts of Selangor. Sheppard soon realised that driving conditions were very different from back home in Britain.

There, drivers generally stick to, or at least indicate, when they are about to change lanes. In Malaysia ... let’s just say such certainties are best not taken for granted.

Participants had to look at videos like this one and press a button when a hazard - such as this bus about to change lanes without indicating - was seen to emerge. 
Participants had to look at videos like this one and press a button when a hazard - such as this bus about to change lanes without indicating - was seen to emerge.

“I found myself having to rethink my driving strategy,” she admits.

Being behind the wheel here did make her wonder, though: are the perceptual and cognitive processes involved in our driving affected by conditions on the road?

Sheppard now heads the university’s Driving Research Group, and it is the first to do experimental research on driving in Malaysia. Until now, most studies have been based on surveys or observational analysis and aimed at understanding the social aspects of driving, rather than cognition.

The test

The study began two years ago, and saw Malaysian drivers being put to the test not on the road, but in a tiny room at the university’s campus in Semenyih.

They were asked to watch a series of short video clips, and press a button every time a hazard appeared.

The study included both experienced and novice drivers, and was repeated with volunteers at the British campus, resulting in a set of cross-cultural reaction times.

Reaction times are interesting, explains Sheppard, because they can tell us about a person’s hazard perception abilities, which in turn factors into safe driving.

Dr Sheppard began wondering whether or not conditions on the road impact the cognitive processes behind how we drive, just after she moved to Malaysia. 
Dr Sheppard began wondering whether or not conditions on the road impact the cognitive processes behind how we drive, just after she moved to Malaysia.

Let’s say the “hazard” is a person about to step out onto the road. It’s possible to assume that there is a period of time within which one should respond to this threat, ideally a little bit before the person actually steps onto the road.

“So the quicker the participant presses the button – the reaction time – the sooner they have spotted the hazard,” says Sheppard. “In theory, a quicker reaction time will give you more time to avoid hazards, by slowing down or swerving, for example.”

Aside from reaction times, researchers were also interested in gauging the subjects’ visual strategies when driving.

In fact, the video screen on which the driving simulation videos were played was actually part of an eye-tracking system.

Two infrared strips located at the top and bottom of the screen would detect the contrast between white and dark parts of the eye, allowing researchers to pinpoint exactly where participants were looking on the screen, at any given point in time.

This way, they could see if participants were constantly scanning for hazards, or just focusing on the road ahead.

Initially, the researchers were unsure of how the results would go.

“We thought maybe people here (in Malaysia) would react faster, because they are so attuned to hazards here,” says Lim Phui Cheng, a post-graduate student and one of the main researchers on this study.

“Or maybe they would react slower, because they’ve become desensitized to those hazards ... after all you don’t want to be on your toes all the time when driving.”

Surprise, surprise

Lim’s second guess seems to have been spot on. Though experienced drivers outperformed novice drivers overall, the Malaysians were much slower to react than the British participants.

And the difference was statistically significant – British drivers took an average of 1.68 seconds to register the emerging threat, whereas Malaysian drivers took 2.25 seconds to respond.

Slower reaction times can have a number of implications. In the past, studies have shown a correlation between slow reaction times and crash rates on the road (Quimby, Maycock, Carter, Dixon & Wall, 1984).

In this case, Sheppard and her team are cautious about drawing any conclusions.

In fact, the eye-tracking data showed Malaysians were seeing the hazards at roughly the same time as the British drivers, so it’s not like we were actually failing to see the hazards.

Sheppard suggests that this sort of test, though a standard tool used in driver licensing procedures in Britain and Australia, may not be the best way to investigate and measure hazard perception in Malaysia.

“People here may simply have a different concept of what constitutes a hazard,” says Sheppard.

Which begs the question: do Malaysians have a higher threshold for danger?

It certainly seems like the results could simply reflect driving conditions in the participants’ home country.

Drivers used to hazardous environments may become desensitized; and having a slightly attenuated view of what constitutes a hazard doesn’t mean you’re not noticing what’s going on around you, Sheppard points out.

Another interesting finding was that Malaysian participants seemed far less “trigger-happy” than their British counterparts when it came to distinguishing hazards from non-hazards.

“We found British drivers were responding a lot more to things that were not necessarily hazardous, whereas Malaysians had a lower overall response rate – which could mean they’re better at picking out actual hazards,” Sheppard says.

But then again...

Sheppard and Lim hope to see their paper published sometime in the near future.

In the meantime, however, they’ve been working on getting around the potential “danger threshold” bias, using alternative methods to investigate hazard perception.

In a test dubbed “What Happens Next?” the researchers once again got a set of participants from Malaysia and Britain to watch a series of driving simulation videos. This time, however, the videos were paused just before the hazard occurred, and participants had to guess what was about to happen next.

“We like this method because we aren’t actually asking people to say whether they think a situation is hazardous or not, they just have to predict what’s going to happen,” says Sheppard.

And so far, preliminary results for the study look interesting.

British drivers beat Malaysian drivers – again. And there was a statistically significant difference between the two sets of scores.

“And this time, we can’t say it’s because they each have a different idea of how to define what a hazard is,” adds Sheppard.

Still, it’s early days to be drawing any sweeping conclusions. The team is still in the process of doing follow-up questionnaires for the “What Happens Next?” study.

Plus, this is only just the beginning of its investigations into Malaysian driving behaviour.

Generally, good scores on the test point to a better level of situational awareness. Previous studies have shown experienced drivers, who have had a longer time to develop their “mental model” of the potential hazards that may be encountered on the road, do better than novices.

However, it’s also possible that previous experiences with similar hazard perception videos while taking their British driving tests may have conferred some sort of advantage to the British participants.

Either way, there is probably a bigger question on your mind right now: could there be a causal link between poor performances on the hazard perception test, and erratic driving behaviour (so often seen on Malaysian roads)?

Unfortunately, untangling any such relationship would require a lot more research.

For example, follow-up studies would need to be done to see if observations in the lab actually correlate with higher accident rates in real life, explains Sheppard.

But if future findings do reveal a reliable correlation between hazard perception test results and driver safety, it would make a fairly strong argument for its inclusion as part of the local licensing process.

So can science tell us if Malaysians really are bad drivers? Looks like we’ll just have to sit tight and wait a little longer to find out.

In the meantime, keep those seatbelts buckled!

Tags / Keywords: Science Technology, Hazard perception, Nottingam University Malaysia Campus, experimental psychology, accident rates, driving

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