Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Operating farm equipment, including tractors, is the leading cause of death and a top cause of injury among children who work in agriculture, one of the nation's most dangerous occupations, but a proposal by the Department of Labor that would have limited their ability to operate farm equipment was dropped earlier this year after farm families and groups denounced it as overreaching and an attack on their way of life. Now Ryan Foley reports that with regulation off the table, scientists are using a simulator to look at how children of different ages process information and make decisions while driving tractors in a first-of-its-kind study of cognitive development skills. Eighty-eight farm children with tractor experience will hop in the cab of a commonly used a John Deere 7920 simulated tractor to take a virtual drive using the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa. "Our goal is to try to develop knowledge that makes it easier to prevent these accidents," says Tim Brown, a University of Iowa researcher. A movie screen wraps around the tractor, projecting life-like images of their surroundings. The children, ages 10 to 17, will mow fields, navigate hills and maneuver around buildings, people and vehicles. They'll drive along gravel roads in traffic, merge, stop at intersections and pass cars. All the while, software will record their every move, including speeds, use of brakes, acceleration and eye movements. "We have cameras that monitor them, including two eye-tracking cameras that allow us to look at where they are looking at during a given time," adds Brown. Joe Gregoricka, 16, the oldest of five children at the family's dairy farm in rural Springville says the simulator was pretty realistic. "I started (operating a tractor) when I was 11," says Gregoricka. "I think it's been pretty important since there is room for safety everywhere. I'm glad I could be a part of it.""
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