HSRC Directions
fall/winter 13
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Shaping the future of transportation safety, a TRB session recap

Safety is a top concern among practitioners and researchers across modes of transportation. In January, HSRC staff joined 12,000 transportation professionals from around the world at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., and participated in safety focused discussions, lectures and panels. One such panel, organized in part by HSRC's own Bevan Kirley, focused on the past and future of transportation.

"This session was exciting and unique in that it encompassed aviation, rail, roadway and maritime in one discussion," said Bevan Kirley, session moderator and HSRC research associate. "In addition to sharing information about advances over the past 50 years and challenges for the future, the conversation and questions allowed participants to consider the overlap, and sometimes the intersection, of safety issues across these different modes."

The following panelists led discussion:

  • Roddy L. Boggus, Parsons Brinckerhoff
  • Bart Elias, Library of Congress
  • David L. Harkey, UNC Highway Safety Research Center
  • Stephen Popkin, Volpe National Transportation Systems Center
  • Alison Smiley, Human Factors North, Inc.
  • Scott J. Smith, U.S. Coast Guard

While the panel discussed many different modes of transportation, David Harkey and Alison Smiley focused on the roadway portion. Some of their commentary included insights on the future of and potential hurdles facing roadway safety.

Future technological innovations will be created with an aim of improving safety in the areas of education, engineering, enforcement, speed reduction and other persistent and unresolved transportation issues. However, as panelists pointed out, advances in technology can be a "double-edged sword," presenting both opportunity and challenge. In areas where legacy systems are in place, it will be necessary to maintain the safety of those legacy systems while also transitioning to systems that are more modern.

For example, as autonomous vehicles become a reality, they will be operating alongside many older vehicles operated by a driver, and both types of vehicles must be equipped to interact in a safe, predictable and reliable manner. Another issue that was discussed was that once a sense of normalcy is achieved using a new piece technology, overreliance on that new equipment can occur. For example, modern-day commercial airline pilots rely heavily on automated systems to fly planes, but it is imperative that they are also able to handle the aircraft without assistance in any situation. In addition, new training is necessary as technology advances, and older equipment needs to be retrofitted to work with these new technologies.

The panel also discussed another hurdle to the future of transportation safety: funding. As more Americans are choosing to drive electric and hybrid cars for economic, environmental or other reasons and therefore buying less fuel and paying less gas tax, policymakers need to rethink how we are funding the construction and maintenance of our road network.

"One of the biggest hurdles that we continue to face is the declining highway trust fund," said David Harkey, director of HSRC. "The gas tax was last raised in 1993. As we see more hybrid vehicles, it may be necessary to go to a user-fee based funding model in the future."

Looking back at technological advances made over the past 50 years, panelists also made sure to point out some good news: these improvements have led to saved lives and a reduction in crashes. Panelist Alison Smiley of Human Factors North, Inc., pointed out technological advances have led to a better, safer design starting in the 1950s when Mercedes introduced the crumple zone to 2010, when the Highway Safety Manual was published.

Other changes and improvements mentioned included: the development of Graduated Drivers Licensing programs, which are now in place in all 50 states and the District of Columbia; the use of blood alcohol content to measure driver impairment; the combination of high-visibility enforcement efforts with awareness campaigns, beginning with Click It or Ticket; the rise in awareness groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving; and an increased focus on pedestrian- and bike-friendly infrastructure. In addition to these advancements, panelists also discussed the development of more sophisticated data analysis tools to help safety practitioners make better-informed safety decisions. For example, the AASHTO Highway Safety Manual, SafetyAnalyst, and the Interactive Highway Safety Design Model, which were implemented in many states in recent years, increased understanding of the need for, and value of, data.

What will transportation safety and technology look like in the next 50 years? Surely, there will be new issues and challenges to address, but there will also be opportunity for research to make all modes of transportation safer, greener, and more efficient for future generations.

The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center
730 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Suite 300  |  Campus Box 3430  |  Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3430
Phone: 919.962.2203  |  Fax: 919.962.8710