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Union math professors take speed to a new perception

JACKSON, Tenn.Feb. 25, 2002 – “Reality doesn’t bite; rather our perception of reality bites,” says The College Blue Book by Anthony J. D’Angelo. Combine the perception of a college student and the thing he spends most of his time doing and what do you get? The answer: a speeding ticket.

Perhaps Dr. Bryan Dawson and Dr. Troy Riggs, both associate professors at Union, were paying attention to their students when they began research concerning a common optical illusionary effect that takes place for a driver on a speedway – the results of which showed that the speed a person drives seems to distort their perception of the average speed of motorists surrounding them.

“The distortion is most pronounced for drivers who are going much faster or slower than average,” Dawson recently told the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego, Calif., last month. Apparently, the faster a person drives, the slower the average speed of the entire freeway appears to the individual; conversely, the slower a driver drives, the faster the average speed will appear. This illusion is best represented by a bell-curve, Dawson and Riggs explained in their report.

In a test in which the speed of drivers was near 68 mph, a driver traveling at a speed of 65 mph would perceive the speed of their fellow motorists to be close to 70 mph. In congested traffic areas, this distortion of perception can make the brake and accelerator seem considerably more sensitive than usual for a car traveling around the average speed, the two math professors suggest.

“Maybe that is one of the reasons driving in heavy traffic is so nerve-racking,” Dawson speculates. “Not only do you have to navigate around lots of cars, but each time you brake or accelerate, your perception of reality changes."

If it has shed light on anything, the math duo’s recent research has cast a few well-deserved rays of recognition on both Dawson and Riggs. In addition to receiving a federal grant for their department to further the study, Dawson and Riggs’ work was recently showcased in the January issue of New Scientist. The pair was also contacted by the editor for Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science concerning a video program to be produced by the American Institute of Physics.

By Josh Howerton,
Class of 2005

Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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