Civil engineers scout out accident hazards to make roads safer

12/15/2007 8:00:00 AM

Zong Tian wants to find ways to help reduce the frequency of car accidents at some of the dangerous intersections throughout the Truckee Meadows.

An assistant professor of civil engineering at the University, he heads the campus' Traffic Safety Research Project employing "safety surrogates." The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) sponsors the initiative.

The project identifies several potentially hazardous or high-accident roadway locations in the Reno-Sparks area. In Nevada, there are 400 traffic deaths every year, making motor vehicle accidents one of the leading causes of death in the state.

Lynwood "L.J." Johnson, a graduate research assistant in the civil and environmental engineering department, is part of Tian's team. According to Johnson, the safety surrogates' goal is to find ways to predict where an accident is going to happen.

"The current system looks at accident records and tries to predict problems," Johnson said. "The problem with this is that they wait three years for 20 accidents and then have to wait longer to do something about it. We aim to find low-cost ways to predict a dangerous location before we get 20 accidents."

By proactively identifying dangerous sites, corrective actions can be taken at earlier stages and, hopefully, future accidents can be avoided.

Predicting the site of a dangerous intersection has the research team looking for skid marks, broken pieces of glass or pieces of cars. Team members check whether correlations exist between the data they have collected and actual accident records from these locations. If the predictions are correct, the team may be able to find inexpensive and perhaps easier ways to make the intersection or roadways safer.

The team is also gathering data through a traffic-safety citizen survey; another proactive method being evaluated in this research. The approximately two-minute public survey asks drivers in Reno-Sparks about sites they feel are unsafe. Often, these places overlap. It is open to motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.


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