CLEMSON — Two human factors psychologists from Clemson University are employing technology used in Hollywood filmmaking to make pedestrians and bicyclists more conspicuous to drivers.

“Human factors psychologists use science to solve real-world problems that develop between people and technology,” said Rick Tyrrell, psychology professor. “In the case of our research, getting the science into the public domain can change – and save – lives.”

Pedestrian safety uses luminescent technology

Researchers Drea Fekety, left, and Rick Tyrrell, right employed luminescent technology to a garment worn by Rob Hanson.
Image Credit: Craig Mahaffey / Clemson University

At stake in Clemson’s research are the lives of 200,000 worldwide – the number of pedestrian fatalities that occur at night.

Tyrrell and Ph.D. student Drea Fekety are using electro-luminescent technology that does not require headlight illumination to create better visibility of pedestrians and cyclists. The technology was used to make the costumes in the 2010 Disney movie “Tron Legacy.”

Clemson’s night-time vision research excellence has caught the attention of two of the largest athletic clothing and bicycle manufacturers in the world. Through research grants, the industry giants are tapping Clemson’s 10 years of safety research to reduce risks to pedestrians and bicyclists.

“At night, an overwhelming majority of drivers in our research think they can see pedestrians from a safe distance, and most pedestrians think they’re conspicuous to drivers. However, our 10 years of research makes clear neither the driver nor the pedestrian is accurate in their perceptions,” Tyrrell said.

Clemson’s research on making pedestrians more conspicuous to drivers at night has also been recognized by the international community, particularly in the use of “biological motion wear.” Biological motion wear incorporates reflectors on the body’s moving parts – elbows, wrists, knees and ankles.

New Zealand and Australia have endorsed the use of biological motion wear for the country’s construction workers and other “professional pedestrians,” such as firefighters, police officers and EMTs, in part, as a result of Clemson research. Tyrrell is hoping it will also be endorsed more widely in the U.S.

“Road workers wearing reflective vests have been somewhat successful, but it isn’t enough,” Tyrrell said. “Putting retro-reflectors on the body’s moving parts makes a pedestrian far more conspicuous to drivers than a seemingly motionless reflective device on one’s torso.”

Tyrrell and Fekety are quick to point out that a reflective device isn’t effective if it isn’t illuminated by a vehicle’s headlights. For example, a roadside pedestrian donning biological motion wear and not in a headlight’s aim may not be noticeable to a driver unless they step into the path of the vehicle.

The athletic wear and bicycle manufacturer think the newest phase of Clemson research has the potential to create a safer world for their users.

Fekety has repurposed the electro-luminescent technology in an effort to develop garments that don’t require direct illumination to be seen. The technology employs flexible panels that glow with a battery-powered current.

“We’ve applied 8-inch by 1-inch electro-luminescent and reflective strips to a black track garment. Each of the luminescent strips runs off two AA batteries,” said Fekety. “We developed a second garment that utilizes only the traditional reflective material. For both garments, we strategically placed the reflective and luminescent materials on movable body parts – ankles, knees and wrists.”

When compared against one another, drivers were better at seeing the garment which combines luminescent and reflective materials. “This combination garment was significantly more effective at conveying the pedestrian’s movement when he was outside the oncoming car’s headlight beams,” Fekety said.

Though the luminescent materials proved more visible outside a headlight’s beam, Fekety said there is work to do before it makes its way to the public. “Making it less bulky and more usable is one thing that needs to be addressed. That part of the equation is handled in development by our industry partners.”

As Clemson researchers strive to create a safer world for pedestrians and bicyclists, one thing will remain constant, human behavior will be at the root of finding a solution.

“Our job is to explore how to best merge developing technology with perceptual capabilities of drivers,” said Tyrrell. “If we’ve done that job well, then apparel and lighting technologies will be developed to create a safer world for pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.”