Situation Awareness

Level 1 SA Looking and Perceiving
Level 2 SA Thinking and Understanding
Level 3 SA Anticipation
Situation awareness as a fluid process

Note on using this material.  You will find many tips here that you can extract from a cursory flick through. However, unless you are already familiar with SA it would be most useful for you to read through the sections in a step-by-step fashion. I make one or two complex points, and they are the most valuable parts to grasp. Once you understand the basis of what I am getting at you will probably find that you remember the tips and can apply them systematically when you are driving.


INTRODUCTION -Situation Awareness and how it can help drivers

A pilot's idea applied to driving

Pilots have found that they can become better at anticipation, and thereby become better pilots, by learning a set of cognitive skills. Learning to drive and learning to fly both use the same types of mental processes, even though aviation skills are more complex than driving.

One advanced skill learned by both pilots and drivers is anticipation, and it is anticipation that leads to enhanced risk perception. The same set of techniques used by pilots to increase their anticipation can also be used by us drivers to increase our risk perception skills.

The following information is based on the idea of Situation Awareness that has been developing in the aviation domain for the past 50 years, and which has been adapted here to the road transport environment. The material incorporates tips on how to increase situation awareness as a pilot would, and links this to both the risk perception test, and the idea of defensive driving.

For a long time pilots have realised that there is an additional aspect of their skills that is not directly about flying knowledge. This extra skill involves the way we mentally approach the task of anticipating events, and gives us a more systematic way in which to be aware of our progress through the environment. This ability is known as situation awareness.

The difference between an average pilot and a professional and highly skilled pilot lies in their situation awareness ability. These pages show you how you can also take your driving skills to a more professional level by applying methods that pilots use.

Situation awareness is a simple idea. It logically states that we must first perceive, and then understand, before we can anticipate.

The basis of situation awareness training is that it is simply not enough just to draw on your knowledge and make an effort to anticipate. What we need to be doing is developing a mental strategy based on enhancing how to look, how to interpret what we see, and then how to combine the meaning of what we see in a way that increases our anticipation of relevant threatening events. Each of the three levels of situation awareness: looking, thinking, and anticipating, use different mental processes.

2passLevel 1 situation awareness is where we look and perceive basic information.

2passLevel 2 situation awareness is where we think about and understand the meanings of that information.

2passLevel 3 situation awareness is where we use the meanings in order to anticipate what will happen ahead in time and space.

I will go into some depth on each of the levels, and will also explore the way that the levels come together in a balanced and interlinked circular flow of looking, thinking, and anticipating. This will help to build our risk perception into a smooth stream of attention concentrated on spotting and avoiding danger long before the event occurs.

I cannot over emphasize that by fully understanding the process of developing situation awareness, and systematic building of the skill you can vastly improve your safety skills when driving. More importantly, by building up the elements of this method, and practising this SA strategy you can begin to make it a habit. It is the best habit you can have, and it may help to offset some of the bad habits that can creep in. It can help to maintain a sense of your driving as a professional task, and as the only task to be engaged in while in the driving seat of a road-vehicle.

Situation Awareness (SA) Since the 1950's and earlier, pilots have described having good or bad situation awareness. During the past three decades a considerable amount of scientific research has been devoted to understanding this and other aspects of pilots' cognition. Airline pilots and fighter pilots routinely discuss their SA, and flight schools apply human factors knowledge to help train pilots in the better use of this 'meta-skill'. SA is a meta-skill because it works over and above your existing skills, enabling you to manage your own cognition abilities more effectively. As a driver, you will show similar professionalism to pilots by learning about SA and other aspects of driver cognition, such as emotional states and how these can affect thinking and behaviour.


LEVEL 1 SITUATION AWARENESS -Looking and Perceiving

What do we see when we look? Do we see what is out there in the world, or do we see only what we expect to see? The answer is that we do see what is in our environment, but we tend to see more of what we expect to see. In short, what we see depends to some extent on what we already know. Because looking for information in the environment depends on knowledge you already have about what you are looking for, the levels of SA are interdependent and inseparable, and they depend on the knowledge you have about driving. Learning to improve your SA can therefore only occur if you are also widening your knowledge of driving theory.

Although the SA levels are interdependent, we will attempt to tease them apart enough that they can be practised separately. Risk perception cannot be effectively trained without breaking it down into its component parts, and experience with pilot training has shown that when we practise each of the levels, and understand how the process fits together, the honed skills and insight into our behaviour are a valuable aid to error reduction.

Any technique for enhancing the amount of relevant information we perceive has to take account of the fact that looking is not enough, we have to systematically look for something specific. This means that there is a link between learning the skill of driving well and learning to apply your vision to the things you need to see. In driving we are lucky that there are fewer types of things that we need to view than in other areas of transportation. Nevertheless, the store of knowledge still needs to be vast. Therefore, learning to look (and think and anticipate) effectively, learning your driving theory, and learning through practical driving experience, are all required for an increase in risk perception.

Fig 1 - Scanning Strategy

The way to increase the perception of relevant information as a driver is to use a scanning strategy (A simplified example in Fig.1). You already do this before every manoeuvre. You will have been trained to look in specific areas before signalling, and then manoeuvring. It is a systematised way of perceiving information in the environment so that you sample regularly without having to consider what to do first.

There is no need then to think about where to look, we can learn to scan so that we do it automatically and at intervals that help us pick up enough information from the environment. The technique of scanning for SA is to be applied at all times, even when you are not about to make a manoeuvre. The reason for this is that we need to make an effort to scan relevant areas continuously if we are going to increase the chance of picking up dangerous events in time.

If we do not search in our mirrors then we have little knowledge of what is happening to the rear. The same applies to the view in front. Simply looking with a wide focus at the road ahead is not a good strategy, because that is not an active search for information. When we look without an active search it is like only looking at part of the field of view. In particular we are not good at changing our focus from near to far and vice versa, and this causes the current depth of focus to be more dominant in the visual search. An active search for information is achieved by moving the focus of visual attention from one possible threat location to the next, while silently talking through in your mind the items you are checking for.

Figure 1 shows a road scene with a pattern of visual search superimposed. The driver starts the pattern at the car in front, moving the focus ahead slightly to car further ahead, and then to the car violating the white line. These items are the most immediately threatening and need to be 'held onto' visually while looking further ahead along the route. There is a service station on the right, an oncoming car in the distance, and then a quick look into the distance is the last point before returning to the car directly ahead. This pattern is then repeated.

The process is concentrated and considered, and when the view and the items within it change the scanning pattern adapts to incorporate new items and discard non-relevant ones. While looking you will be silently (or talking out loud if you like) talking through what you are looking for. This list will have come from the meanings of what is currently in the scene and what you had previously anticipated was about to happen in the current scene. These processes will be explored in later sections. The scanning and talk-through has the effect of checking each possible threat to safety, a bit like a checklist. It ensures that fewer possible threats are missed or forgotten about. The scanning always starts with the highest priority threat, and if that high priority threat increases then the rate of scanning increases so that you are checking it more often.

Two levels of concentration

This scanning strategy is a dynamic process and it requires constant concentration. It is also a little more complex than explained in the last paragraph. When you are scanning a pattern, starting with the most immediate threat to safety, your peripheral vision should still hold onto that immediate threat while the rest of the scan is carried out. You are therefore aiming to maintain concentration on two visual processes simultaneously. One searches, and the other is a continuous but wide focused tracking of the most immediate threat.

This is the essence of what happens in good SA, maintaining the context (threats to safety) while switching between areas of focused attention (looking for more threats to safety). It is hard work, but it is the most important part of developing SA in a fast moving visual scene. Hopefully my description of this first level for developing SA has not put you off trying. I suggest that you now make a note of the description up to this point so you can use it as an additional aid when you practice scanning and controlling your attention in exercise 1.

Exercise 1 - looking and perceiving

Next time you are driving set yourself the task of getting part of your attention moving, and keep it moving, while maintaining an attentional hold on the most likely threat to safety. It is possible, through practice, to train yourself to continue scanning automatically and to maintain this for about 20 to 40 minutes. Have a go. If you find it difficult, then take a break and try it again the next time you drive. Repeated efforts will pay off.

The scanning is itself a simple task that can easily become automatic. It is the focused and moving centre of concentration that requires greater training. If you can begin to develop a scanning pattern immediately, then you are doing well. If you can add to it the concentration then you are doing exceptionally well (and if you can do this immediately then perhaps you have practised some mental concentration techniques). Driving a car is a task where good situation awareness is a very useful application of mental concentration techniques.

So, practice the scanning, and practice the concentration of your attention. When you can maintain both of these for 20 to 40 minutes you have a firm basis on which to build increased risk perception. Holding this sort of sustained attention for 40 minutes is hard work, and it deserves a rest. Stop at the next services and re-run the tape of what you have just filmed in your mind's eye. This is your test of level 1 SA. How much can you remember about the last 40 minutes? If you were performing well then you may be able to visually imagine the scenes. Don't worry if you can't piece it together, not everyone can, and that does not mean you were not mentally present. Some of us think in sounds and other modalities, rather than visually, so this test may not work for everyone. If it does not work for you then this is all the more reason to keep practicing scanning, to help support and increase your visual thinking ability.

What is important is that if you recollect the route then it should not be a patchy memory. If you recollect at all it should be continuous. This is what you are aiming for: A sense of continuous presence along the route you have just travelled, including other vehicles and the road scene itself (signs, road-rule markings, and junctions). This 'mental videotape' of your route is what you use for the other two levels of SA, and it is the basis of your external consciousness of events.

Distraction and wandering attention

One reason why you may find your attention wandering may be because you need to increase you ability at focused concentration, but the more likely reason will be distraction. There is no easy halfway house with distraction, because distraction is loss of attentional control. You cannot afford to lose control of your attention, because this is what keeps you in control of the vehicle.

Distraction is a line over which you should not step, because in the seconds it takes to get back into the flow of information, there can be gaps in perception that lead to fatal error. Pilots call this 'being out of the loop'. This term graphically describes situation awareness as a loop of processes, which if interrupted, take a while to re-enter.

You may have found that concentrating is difficult enough without having distraction factors involved. When it comes to distraction you need to remove it from your driving. That is to say, if something occurs that takes your attention away from driving then it is too late; you will have broken the smooth flow of information coming in from the environment. Your attention will have moved from the task, and you may not even have enough time to safely get your attention back on the task before something changes in the environment.

Therefore if: passengers, in-car multimedia devices, or loose items rolling around in the back parcel shelf distract you, then you have two options. Firstly, you can practise increasing your concentration so that you can hold your attention on the driving task and not allow it to be drawn away. Or secondly, you should remove those threats to your concentration from the vehicle.


LEVEL 2 SITUATION AWARENESS - Thinking and Understanding

You should have now covered the perception stage of situation awareness. That is the part requiring the most cognitive effort, and it is the foundation on which to base the subsequent two components. Understanding and anticipation will be easier to explain, based on the foundation of perception. However, in the overall development of situation awareness, the subsequent two steps are just as important as scanning.

The next stage is comprehension of the information. We need to think and understand, to fully comprehend, the meaning of the vast array of visual information. What is understanding? How do we develop a sense of the meaning of information? You might reasonably reply that understanding comes naturally. When we see something that has a meaning, we intuitively know its meaning and we can jump directly to action.

'That give way sign means that I am being asked to pay attention to traffic on another lane, because another vehicle will have priority'

or more intuitively-

'Give priority to other vehicles'

You may see that such an idea is flawed. We do not develop understanding intuitively or naturally as in the second statement. There are too many changing factors in the environment for us to make a clear decision on what a particular item means. What we do is to make a complex logical appraisal of the situation, more like the first statement than the second. More likely still the appraisal we make will consider many more connected variables. We draw from our memory all the connected events and then make a heuristic (rule-of-thumb) judgement, although the impression we get is of an instantaneous and intuitive reaction. However, what we do when we comprehend a situation is to sum up the probabilities and then we take a bet on what it might mean.

The problem is that we are very good at developing a meaning, and understanding, based on a judgment from just one or maybe two variables, and then convincing ourselves that we have taken into consideration many more things that have happened in our environment.

We humans are very good at reducing our sense of uncertainty by convincing ourselves that we made a safe judgement. I'm sure you can think of many driving or non-driving situations where you have taken a confident decision, only to discover that you had greatly underestimated some factors. Three examples of this are as follows-

One example, which happens frequently, is bad estimation of the speed of other vehicles coming towards you when stationary. What happens is we base our estimation on information which is a second or so out of date, this means that a vehicle coming towards you tends to be credited with less speed than it actually has. Rather than a bias towards maintaining a safe gap we tend to naturally allow the margins to be skimmed down to nothing at all.

You will also experience this effect when crossing the road as a pedestrian. A car will appear to be moving towards you much slower than when it actually passes you, though if you happen to be in the path of that car then you could make the decision to move out of its way far too late (although you might make this decision very confidently indeed!)

A final example is the underestimation of speed in fog; when driving in fog we take a lack of speed information in the environment as a signal that we are not speeding, and we therefore drive as if everything is OK. For most of the time the assumption seems to be confirmed because we do not encounter any obstacles. Rarely an obstacle is there in the fog but we do not received the information until it is too late to correct the speed, and it is this rare event that will creep up unaware and get you.<

These examples of human decision-making frailties are compounded because there are also many other aspects of our behaviour, our emotional states and our attitudes, that impact on the effectiveness of our decision-making. That's how we have accidents so easily, and often so irreversibly, because our thinking process is not quite good enough when we have convinced ourselves that we have made a reasonable decision on balance of probabilities. To counter such effects we need to have a thinking strategy that makes our mistakes and internal states more obvious, so that we can self-manage our errors and correct them in good time.

If we have an accident it will be because we make a bad judgement, and that judgement will be flawed because we did not think things through step-by-step, this is the basis of error management. Step-by-step thinking though of events and consequences is how we should seek to understand the information we perceive. This is the stage at which we filter errors as they creep into our performance. It follows then that if we pay more attention to thinking about the pros and cons of events then we can spot more possible accidents approaching.  If you have experience of flying or have observed pilots using their skills you will have noticed that they organise their thinking in a step-by-step manner, constantly checking what they see and what they do. As drivers we need to adapt our thinking so that we take in and compare as many possible variables as we can before we develop an understanding that we will base a decision upon. The world is an uncertain place and the more possible variables we consider the more we can reduce that uncertainty and make accurate appraisals of events.

You will have noticed in the perception section I mentioned that when using a scanning strategy it is best to talk yourself through the process. The reason for this is that it can help you to keep the process of scanning conscious and available to adapt and improve. It is very difficult to learn and improve the process while it is automatic. Sub-verbally thinking (talking to yourself) through the performance is useful because it is best to think the process through consciously rather than intuitively. When we do it consciously we can hold components in mind, remember other items they are linked to, thereby searching our minds for as many possibilities as we can so we can make a far more accurate appraisal of a situation.  'Give way sign > look in the other road > be aware of vehicles > I may need to brake > look behind > vehicle in front may need to brake > I may not have looked effectively > look in the other road again', and so on.

Ultimately this allows you to add additional self-checking thoughts to the process while visually appraising the environment:  'Am I sure I could stop in this distance on this surface in the wet?' 'Could I be making an over-confident decision because I am in an excited mood?' If you can develop conscious thoughts like: I am not at my best today, be careful, slow down, increase the margins', then you are on your way to self-checking that will increase your situation awareness.

Exercise 2 - thinking and understanding

Now that you have a scanning strategy you can add a thinking strategy to it. The next time you are driving aim to talk yourself through what you see in the road environment and what it means in terms of safety and threats. While you are doing this think about how the mental commentary helps you to keep your attention moving between possible threats, and how it helps you pay attention to areas where you cannot see threats but where you know they must be. This second level of situation awareness is how you mediate the whole process, using some of your mental processes as a monitor on your own thinking throughout the journey.

In the 3rd section we will explore how perception added to understanding begin to support better anticipation skills and to therefore assist risk perception.



Now we have uncovered the first two steps involved in developing situation awareness. The first step, scanning effectively to pick up information, ensures that we have collected enough facts on which to base an understanding of the current events. The second stage of developing an understanding is also far more complex than it appears at first. An accurate understanding of the current situation requires continuous thought about the environment and actions we have made, even to the extent of considering our mental state and how that may affect our understanding of events. So we now have these two processes running, we are looking effectively and thinking about events.

The next step, that is only possible when the first two processes are working, is to anticipate what is going to happen. Anticipation is how we begin to see accidents before they happen and make good decisions in order to carry out defensive actions.

You may think that we are already very good at acting quickly in dynamic environments like driving, making anticipatory decisions and making amazing manoeuvres at fast speeds. And we are very good at doing these things. However, we are not as good as we think we are. Nature has provided us with the skills to be athletes and acrobats at human-powered speeds, and some of us may be very good at being racing drivers. But try to imagine how good racing drivers would be if their track had a two-way flow of traffic. Such a configuration could never be considered because even racing drivers would not be able to anticipate the actions of oncoming vehicles closing at 400mph. As it is, racing drivers do not have to deal with anticipating oncoming objects moving independently of the environment, and their skills can be focused on the less-dynamic (but non-the-less hectic) aspects of other vehicles around them all moving in the same direction. With this in mind, consider your progress on a two-lane road. How much time would you have to react if an oncoming vehicle strayed across into your lane?

This worst-case scenario may be rare but it is an example we can use to understand the benefits of increasing our anticipation. Lets imagine that in a situation where an oncoming vehicle may collide with our vehicle there is a window of about a second where it will hit us or pass us and hit someone behind. In such a situation we would not have time to react and for our car to react and avoid the impact. However, if we could spot that errant vehicle just one or two seconds ahead of this, by recognising tell-tale signs of erratic behaviour or intention to turn in error, then 2-3 seconds anticipation would give sufficient time for us to map the vehicle's trajectory, decide where to go, and then turn one-way or the other in order to avoid it.

I give this example not to argue that we don't have the skills to manage split-second decisions, but to illustrate that given 10 such situations you are likely to fail in one, and one is enough to kill you. It's a matter of probability, and over 80,000 deaths in the EU and North America each year attest to this fact. It is over a lifetime of driving that we can make good use of our skills at anticipation in order to keep several seconds of safe decision making space around us, and aim not to let anyone enter get beyond this perimeter. Over a lifetime the approach will pay off, and on a national level we could reduce the road injury statistics if we all keep a safe space around us. This logic extends to non-threatening road users such as children and cyclists, if we are on the lookout for them further ahead then we can avoid endangering them.

You may have noticed that what I have just explained is an outline of the principle of defensive driving. If you have not come across this idea, it simply states that if we all aim to stay out of range of threatening events then no one can collide with our vehicle. It is about predicting what events are likely to result in our harm.

The more people practise this approach the less likely there will be any accidents; we will all keep out of each other's way. The way in which we achieve the safe space around us is by anticipating, and this is founded on looking and thinking skills, combined with knowledge about what types of things can pose a threat.

This is the point at which I would like to remind you, if you are a novice driver, if you have passed your test and you are beginning to feel confident, or even if you feel yourself to be an experienced driver, that a key ingredient of anticipation, defensive driving, or situation awareness, is to have a good knowledge base. The 'meta-skill' of situation awareness complements and enhances your cognition while driving, it does not replace road craft skills. Situation awareness is all about knowing the future situation, but what you do not know about you cannot predict.  It will most likely be the thing you have not yet learned about that will be most likely to harm you, as you probably won't see it coming. So building your knowledge base of road craft is as important to driving as is looking out of the windscreen.

So how do we use knowledge, looking, and thinking, to increase our anticipation of events around us? A good example is the way we predict people's behaviour in social situations. When interacting with a person, we talk to them but we also watch their responses (looking), we think about what they are saying, and we consider its possible meaning (thinking), but we don't immediately jump to a conclusion about the person and how they might act in the future (not if we have any sense, people are more difficult to predict than road vehicles). The next step after looking and thinking is to do some hypothesis testing. We decide what we think is most likely to be going on in the person's mind and how they may behave, then we tend to hedge our bets on our own actions until we see the other person make a move. If we observe them behaving 'normally' then we go a bit further ourselves. This is incidentally, thought to be the way we make friendships and relationships, by gradual and gentle disclosure of our inner selves. To take people immediately at face value is a risky business. The reason is that there are too many possibilities and not enough information to go on to make a good decision immediately (uncertainty again), and it is the same with dynamic environments like driving.

In order to make good anticipative decisions we have to do some hypothesis testing about our initial predictions, by re-scanning the scene to see if things are progressing the way we predict. If the behaviour of the other vehicle is following our prediction we can strengthen the weight we place on a decision for a particular action.

If you think about it you may have examples of doing this while driving. Many experienced drivers will immediately recognise the following example. You may have a habit of hitting the brake very quickly but lightly when something unexpected happens in front of you, and then as just as quick you release the brake before it causes your vehicle to slow. What is happening is that you are making an appraisal of the situation and taking a provisional action. In this case you take the action immediately because there is a high weight on beginning the braking process before you reach a decision about whether there is a threat or not. When you have finished appraising the situation you decide that you do not need such a severe braking action and so you release it. Alternatively, the vehicle ahead may have stopped suddenly and you continue to brake hard, having been correct and early in your initial prediction. This particular prediction began even before you were consciously aware of it, and it follows the hypothesis testing process. Other anticipative decision-making may not need to be this quick but we can train ourselves to start acting, or just re-focusing our attention on the threat, earlier in the same way as when we hit the brake quickly.

You may see here that by describing anticipation I am also describing the processes of looking and thinking. This is because at the level of anticipation we proceed in small steps, and at each step we check our prediction against new information and its possible meanings. Therefore you can see that developing situation awareness is a cycle. This is a key point in developing anticipation and prediction of risk: You need to look, think, and anticipate, and start again, so that you are doing a continuous mental cycle picking up new information along the way, as shown in the diagram below. In the final section we will explore the way in which you can keep this cycle going



Now you have learned how to keep the cycle going. In this final section we will explore how to effectively combine the levels and develop better awareness in a fluid process. We have seen that each of the levels has its own characteristics, and these levels require us to make an effort to understand our own processes and learn to enhance them. When we have learned to increase each of the levels on its own we then need to combine them into a single process, and this also requires a learning effort. In driving we also need to take account of all that we have covered in the driving theory and general road-safety advice.

Exercise 3 - Anticipation

You should now see that there is a lot more to anticipation than you might have preciously thought. In this exercise you will use the processes of perception and understanding in order to enhance your anticipation, and thereby increase your ability to perceive risks. The aim is now to mentally juggle all three levels, scanning, thinking, and holding in mind probable future events while continuing the cycle in order to watch events as they emerge. This level is just like juggling and like juggling it is difficult to learn, but it can be learned and it is very rewarding when you can achieve a smoothly flowing process.

When you are driving next try to be aware of all three levels of the process rather than allowing it to become intuitive too soon. Gradually move the process towards the point where, like a juggler, you can maintain conscious awareness of what you are seeing, what you are thinking about, and what may be about to happen, all at the same time. Then, like a juggler whose balls circle smoothly, after a while you should find that the process becomes unified and natural.

At this point you have returned to the simplicity of an automatic task. But if you have followed the instructions given here you should have the tools for wider situation awareness. Each time you practice try to re-open each of the levels of situation awareness and make a conscious effort to continue learning. A juggler who learns to use three balls will often find that they can begin the rewarding process of starting again, step-by-step, to learn four ball juggling. With situation awareness a similar path to continual improvement is possible.

To achieve higher levels of situation awareness we to need to pay conscious and thoughtful attention to what we are doing. We are not only aiming to make the process circular, it should eventually become simultaneous, intuitive, and when we are not trying to do it as a learning exercise then its should occur without special effort. You know when you have achieved good situation awareness because you are 'aware of being aware', and when you are not doing it then you will have a fragmented awareness and your attention will wander. If your attention wanders, get back into the cycle and Look, Think, and Anticipateso that your awareness spans time and places you back into a sharp awareness of your whole environment.

Some of the factors that can interfere most with situation awareness, anticipation, and therefore risk perception, are our emotional state, the diversion of our attention to passengers and in-car devices, use of medicines alcohol and other substances, and illness. One of the factors that can help most is to take a professional attitude to your task. Consider yourself to be a professional driver and make your driving career a matter of continuing professional development, and do not treat the driving licence as a right. Learn about road-transport and treat road-safety as a constant professional responsibility. Learn more about the human factors involved in driving, and feed all this information back into your understanding of how you stay aware. When you get into your car think about the levels of awareness and how you are going to perform them, plan your route and then begin the process- Look, Think, Anticipate

Finally, after sufficient practice you should be able to train yourself to switch into a more aware state. Using a mental key word such as 'Be Aware', 'Feel Aware' or simply 'Switch On' should help you to snap back into the cycle when your attention wanders.



Level 1 SA Looking and Perceiving
Level 2 SA Thinking and Understanding
Level 3 SA Anticipation
Situation awareness as a fluid process

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