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Cameras let drivers cash in; Study offers $500 a year to those who allow installation of devices to monitor their behavior behind the wheel

Giving someone permission to track your driving and place small cameras in your car may sound like the beginning of a disastrous comedy movie.

But for as many as 700 Erie County residents, it could be a way to make $500 a year.

The county is one of six areas in the nation selected for a two-year driving survey designed to improve car design and road markings, said Alan Blatt, director of the Center for Transportation and Injury Research at CUBRC Inc. Already, 150 local drivers have signed up.

"The hope is that we will find out how people get close to getting in crashes," said Blatt, who is also the program manager for the Erie County survey site. "[We'll find out] what the risk factor is for crashes -- the way they drive, the way they interact with the car, obstructions, the roadway design."

More than 120,000 people have died because of accidents on U.S. highways in the past three years, and the survey aims to cut down on the number of deaths and injuries.

The 700 Erie County drivers will be among about 3,000 being recruited in Seattle; Bloomington, Ind.; Tampa, Fla.; Durham, N.C.; and State College, Pa.

Erie County is the largest survey area because of the demographics, variety of roadway types and the seasons, Blatt said.

"Our highest priority right now is trying to get young drivers and old drivers," Blatt said. "Most of the newer vehicles are eligible."

To participate, drivers must be more than 16 years old; own, lease or have permission from the vehicle's owner to participate; have a license; drive regularly; live within the study area; be eligible to work in the United States; be able to fill out questionnaires; and be willing to fill their car with recording devices that would make Inspector Gadget proud.

The front of each car in the study is equipped with a radar unit that sits to the side of the license plate, Blatt said.

"That radar looks forward and measures the headway between this car and anything in front of it," Blatt said. "It just provides information about the environment in which the car is being driven."

That environment could include other close traffic, or things like animals in the road and other obstructions. One survey objective is to collect information about rural driving habits, where such obstacles would be plentiful.

A collection of cameras will be attached to the rearview mirror, Blatt said. One looks at the road in front of the car, at the driver, at the driver's lap and out the passenger side.

"A color camera looks out forward and also provides information about the roadway on which the car is being driven," Blatt said. "There's a camera that looks directly at the driver, and they have software after the fact which will let them know where the driver is looking at any one point in time -- whether they're looking ahead or off to the side."

Because of the cameras and national security concerns, vehicles with the cameras are not allowed to cross the border to Canada, Blatt said.

Technology will automatically blur the faces of people who did not agree to the survey, Blatt said. It will flag information collected when someone other than the survey participant is driving so that it is not used for research.

Another camera in the car faces out the back window, Blatt said. It has a wide lens that can see three lanes including the driver's blind spot.

"There's a hookup to the car's computer," Blatt said. "All of the new cars have computers which are keeping track of all that's going on."

Data collected through the project wouldn't be used as accident scene evidence and will be inaccessible to people outside the groups receiving contracts to analyze the data, Blatt said.

"There are federal protections for data that is collected as part of a research project," he said.

The collection devices are not very obtrusive, and most people quickly forget they are being monitored, said JohnPierowicz, senior research scientist at CUBRC Inc. and Erie County site manager.

"Within a week, it's not an issue anymore," he said.

Researchers anticipate that the data will remain important much longer than that.

"The expectation is that the data that gets collected in this program will be analyzed for the next 20 years," he said, to help design safer roads and cars.

This project, which comes with a $50 million price tag, is funded by the Transportation Authorization Bill and is the largest project of its kind ever conducted, Blatt said. It is being conducted by the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Academy of Sciences.

To determine whether your car is eligible or to register for the study, visit www.drivingstudy.org.

email: mtighe@buffnews.com