Simulator tests drivers for effects of drink and drugs: Pharmaceuticals companies queue to use unique new service

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FROM next month, the Transport Research Laboratory in Berkshire will offer a unique commerical service - the closest thing to a real-life test of the effect of drugs and drink on driving.

Some of the world's largest pharmaceuticals companies have booked a place in the queue for the high technology research facility's 'driving simulator'.

The new toy, a Rover 416, sits on hydraulic jacks in a darkened room. Ahead is a huge wrap- around screen. At 210 degrees, this is the widest angle screen on any simulator in Europe. This vast screen, and the advanced computer graphics projected onto it, together create the most realistic simulation of a drive along Britain's most dangerous roads.

Gary Eves, who runs the new unit, said: 'We had one old gentleman who was 'reversing' and shouted out to someone in the back of the room that he was about to run them over.'

TRL is due to be privatised next year and the new testing service could prove a lucrative source of income. It is almost impossible for any new drug that affects the central nervous system to gain a licence unless tested for links with drowsiness and reaction times.

If companies can label medicines as having no demonstrable effect on driving they will secure a valuable marketing advantage. 'Researchers and manufacturers have always had to rely on indirect assessments, using computerised 'video game' style challenges. Tests have never included actual driving,' Mr Eves said.

He went to TRL from Hughes Rediffusion, where he designed simulators for military and civil aircraft. He built the new system for dollars 1m, although similar industrial systems invariably cost 10 times as much.

The simulator uses four projectors to create a lifelike road scene. Photographs of real trees and road surfaces are scanned and digitised, then fed into the system. This creates four lifelike views - front, sides and behind the car.

The car has had its engine removed, but synchronised recorded engine noises are fed into the driver's compartment. The clutch and gear box are modified to 'feel' real.

Behind the scenes are three powerful computers from a British company called Silicon Graphics. The smallest controls the sounds and creates a bird's-eye view of the driver's actions for the operator. The second creates the images and works out how these should change as the driver progresses. The third controls the car dynamics - the suspension, brakes and steering - to create the impression of driving a real car. When I had a go, the engine noise was unconvincing. This made the experience a little unworldly, although real enough for me to reach for the seatbelt. I drove the car into a bridge and was surprised by the physical force of the jolt.

So far, the simulator has been used to test two drugs (an anti-histamine and an anti-depressant) and alcohol. The team plied volunteers with industrial strength Polish spirit disguised in orange juice, then watched their reactions when behind a braking lorry on a simulated motorway journey. The results were far more marked than those from conventional, indirect tests.

This week, the simulator is testing a new driving aid for the elderly. Volunteers between 55 and 65 years are testing the value of a dashboard unit that flashes a red or green light to indicate whether it is safe to pull out into traffic from a minor road.

One driver, Betty Tootill, 65, said she found the car easy to use and confessed that in tests on a less sophisticated simulator she had driven through a hedge and into a field of cows. 'They didn't seem to mind,' she said.

Mr Eves said the simulator has roused interest from the police, keen on the chance to train officers safely in car chases at 120mph. 'The beauty of this system is that we can do things people could never do in real life, and no one gets hurt.'

(Photograph omitted)