This Professor Makes Life Safer for Drivers

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It's 6 o'clock at night and you're almost home. The roads are slick with sleet and ice. You turn a corner a little too fast and suddenly the world loses its center. Your car slides sideways, out of control, into a guardrail.

But wait: Thanks to modern engineering, all is not lost. Your car bounces off the guardrail, and you walk away with no more than a bump on your head.

Turning this kind of nightmare into a happy ending is the job of Worcester Polytechnic Institute Professor Malcolm H. Ray. A safer drive is not only his dream, but also his mission in life.

Ray is an associate professor of civil engineering and WPI's Ralph White Family Distinguished Professor. He recently came to WPI, located in Worcester, Mass., and one of the top technological universities in the country, from the University of Iowa. Ray conducts research on impact-resistant cars and roadside structures such as light poles and guardrails. Civil and environmental engineering department head Frederick L. Hart calls Ray "a significant addition to WPI's Highway Infrastructure Program, which researches many ways of making our nation's highways safer."

Each year 225,000 people are involved in collisions in which a vehicle slides sideways into an object like a tree, utility pole or guardrail. One in three is injured and one in a hundred is killed. But until now no standardized tests or evaluation guidelines existed to help engineers develop safer poles and guardrail terminals for these kind of accidents. That's where Ray comes in.

"My research has to do with what's called roadside safety hardware," Ray said. "That's just a fancy way of saying guardrails, bridge rails, break-away light poles - basically, things that are on the side of the road that the motorist may hit. The goal is to make things people can hit and not get hurt."

Ray designs roadside hardware, looks for new ways to evaluate it and determines how well it actually performs. His research will ultimately set guidelines, make recommendations and develop methods that allow departments of transportation to build and maintain safer roadways.

To do this, he examines real-world collisions and conducts crash tests at the Federal Outdoor Impact Laboratory in McLean, Va. Ray has collected hundreds of photographs of side-impact collisions from laboratory tests as well as accident photos from newspapers and his own on-site investigations.

Currently, Ray conducts projects for the Federal Highway Administration, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program and the Iowa Department of Transportation. His work at WPI is filling in the gap in crash research.

We've all seen television commercials touting the safety of cars as they crash head-on into a wall. But today, Ray said, side-impact crashes are far more dangerous.

"There have been 20 or 30 years of work on front-end crashes," he noted. "Safety items such as air bags, seat belts and the like have vastly improved a driver's chances in a front-end collision. In addition, there's another thing in your favor. Even in a small car, there's about six feet of car that can crush before it gets to you."

That's not the case for side-impact crashes.

"They tend to be really, really ugly," Ray said. "Think of yourself sitting in your car. There's nothing between you and the outside except the window and the door. There's no space and nothing to protect you. When people slide into a utility pole, their heads sometimes directly hit the pole. You can think of it as running headlong into a pole at 30 miles per hour."

Side impacts also are more common than you might think.

"We have found that 10 to 15 percent of guardrail-terminal impacts are side-impact collisions," Ray said. "In one way it doesn't sound like a lot, but we found that most of the severe-injury accidents were side-impacts. They may not be the most common type of accident, but when they happen, they are the most severe."

Side impacts can also be fatal at relatively low rates of speed. "A 20 or 25 mph side impact can easily kill you," Ray said.

Now that front-end crashes have spawned numerous safety features, researchers like Ray are able to address other concerns. Ray calls this the "moving target" theory of safety research: "You find the area that's the worst performer, you work on that, get that straightened out, and then something else pops up as the new worst thing."

Through his research, Ray will develop specific tests and evaluation criteria for roadside hardware and similar tests and criteria for improving safety in side-impact crashes. "We will do some full-scale crash tests this summer to see if our evaluation criteria hold up," he said.

What can be done to make roadsides safer? Here are a few of Ray's recommendations:

  • Utility poles: The easiest thing is to move them away from the road. But utility companies may find that difficult to do, and homeowners may balk at poles in their yards as opposed to the roadside.

    Breakaway utility poles, with a coupling at the base that swings up when the car goes by, are another option. "These really haven't taken off as much as they might have," Ray said.

  • Guardrail terminals: New energy-absorbing models are a big improvement over old varieties. "With the old 1950s and '60s guardrail, you'd hit on the end of it and it would spear right through the car like a shish kabob," Ray said. "The next generation guardrail terminals were designed to push the car behind or in front of guardrail. That's okay, but if you are going 60 miles a hour when you hit the terminal, now you're going 59 miles an hour behind it, possibly heading down a steep slope where other bad things can happen. With energy-absorbing terminals, the guardrail grabs hold of you and slows you down, so you are brought to stop in a controlled way instead of being thrown around the roadside."

  • Trees: Don't always think green. Sometimes it's better to cut than be cut.

    "The public wants safe roads, but they also want tree-lined streets," Ray said. "It's always a balancing of all the different concerns and constraints."

Ray aims to develop tests and evaluations to serve as the government and industry standard. While the most potentially harmful objects, such as trees, may be off limits for political and environmental reasons, Ray concentrates on trying to improve our chances for surviving an impact.

"Cars in general are much more crashworthy than they were 10 or 20 years ago but they still have problems," he said. "Car design, just like anything else in engineering, is a balancing act. You want safe cars but you also want light cars that get good gas mileage and that are inexpensive."

The father of four youngsters who will all be drivers one day, Ray takes pride in making a contribution toward safer highways.

"It's nice to work in an area where you are doing some societal good," he said. "When we run a good crash test or come up with a new guideline that translates into someone not being killed or injured, that's very nice. It's easy to sleep at night when you work in the safety business."

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