Who You Can Thank for Safer Roads

Engineers and public officials continue to look for ways to improve road safety as traffic increases.

Photo of Who You Can Thank for Safer Roads

Early in the morning, you run through a mental checklist of any last minute items to bring with you – keys, snacks, water, games – and shuffle your luggage and your family into the car to embark on roadtrip.

But a wide range of factors – unfamiliar roads, distractions inside the car, and long hours of fatigue-inducing driving – can have a hand in turning a pleasant vacation into a dangerous journey resulting in a car accident.

The summer months are some of the busiest on America’s highways, but the packed roadways and increased traffic also create more dangerous driving conditions, and increase the likelihood of car accidents. Each year, more than 30,000 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents, and federal statistics show that traffic tends to spike during the summer months.

“As the economy has improved and gas prices have fallen, more Americans are driving more miles,” said Dr. Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, upon releasing preliminary data on traffic deaths last month. “But that only explains part of the increase. Ninety-four percent of crashes can be tied back to a human choice or error, so we know we need to focus our efforts on improving human behavior while promoting vehicle technology that not only protects people in crashes, but helps prevent crashes in the first place.”

Researchers, engineers, and policymakers have been trying to improve driving safety conditions for decades, and it shows – the total number of annual fatal accidents has decreased from more than 50,000 in 1980 to under 33,000 in 2014.

Currently, some within the push to improve safety conditions have turned their attention to vehicle technologies – such as automatic emergency braking systems – that could help prevent crashes from happening in the first place. At the same time, engineers and state and federal agencies continue to look to improve highway infrastructure that can lessen the impact of crashes that do occur.

Before scientists became interested in tinkering with the safety features of cars and roadways, one man – Dr. John Stapp – set out to discover the actual limits of acceleration and deceleration on the human body itself. Many crucial elements of vehicle safety can be traced back to Stapp’s contributions.

Because Stapp, an Air Force medical researcher, was conducting his work in the 1940s and 1950s, long before the first crash test dummies were created, he took matters into his own hands and became the first human crash test dummy.


Although he was testing the effects of supersonic speeds on the human body, as one might experience in an airplane crash, his findings eventually influenced his advocacy for the most fundamental motor vehicle safety feature around today: the seat belt. Stapp was also involved in some of the first tests of vehicle airbags.

Stapp was present in 1966 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which required seat belts in all new cars. Years later, in 1984 New York became the first state to pass a law requiring seat belt use in passenger cars. Still, as recently as 2003, seat belt use was not strictly enforced in all 50 states, prompting the “Click It or Ticket” campaign to go nationwide, encouraging seat belt enforcement.

But safety features like seat belts can only go so far in protecting passengers when vehicles are traveling at higher speeds. Infrastructure such as highway guardrails have been in use for decades. But earlier models had a tendency to create larger problems for drivers, as some metal guardrails had a tendency to impale vehicles upon impact, while other designs avoided that problem, but created conditions that would vault or roll vehicles.

Dr. Dean Sicking, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, is credited with designing some of the most widely used guardrail systems that are in place today. In the 1990s, Sicking designed guardrail end terminals that would safely absorb the energy from the impact of a vehicle, while curling the metal from the guardrail away from the vehicle as it continues to slide along, ideally bringing the car to a controlled stop.

“The flattening and curling absorbed energy to slow the car down,” Sicking says. “It prevented the spearing because the front was designed so it became locked into the front of the car, and it didn’t slide sideways, or up and down.”

Dean Sicking accepting the 2005 National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President George W. Bush

Typically guardrails are placed on stretches of road or highway that have more severe dangers, such as steep embankments or slopes, thick patches of trees, or other objects that might present a hazard for drivers, but could be difficult to correct or remove. In those cases, striking a guardrail might have less severe consequences, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

“They can make roads safer and lessen the severity of crashes. The guardrail can operate to deflect a vehicle back to the roadway, slow the vehicle down to a complete stop, or, in certain circumstances, slow the vehicle down and then let it proceed past the guardrail,” the FHWA said in a 2014 document. “This is not to say that guardrails can completely protect against the countless situations drivers may find themselves in. The size and speed of the vehicle can affect guardrail performance. So can the vehicle’s orientation when it strikes the guardrail. There are many other factors. Transportation engineers, however, carefully weigh the placement of guardrails so that for most drivers in most conditions the barriers work – and work well.”

For Sicking, the work is never over. He says he and his colleagues are currently developing improvements to guardrail systems that he believes could prevent more than 50 percent of the current fatalities involved with guardrail terminals and crash cushions.

“I think we can completely eliminate the problem of secondary hits on crash cushions,” Sicking says, describing the types issues that can rise when a car hits a guardrail unit that has already been damaged from a previous accident.

For Sicking, hearing stories about how his designs have worked to save lives is what keeps him motivated. Over the years, Sicking says he’s gotten to know several highway patrol officers, but one story stands out in his mind.

One officer, Sicking says, was driving down the interstate in the middle of the night and came across a man who had hit the guardrail. Pulling over, the officer noticed the man was screaming, crying, and kicking the wheels of his car. And as the officer approached, he heard the man say, “I can’t even kill myself.”


And as traffic picks up during the summer months and the chance getting in an accident increases, Sicking says he hopes drivers keep in mind three things: don’t be in a rush, don’t drive sleepy, and “be prepared for congestion that you’d never expect,” noting that many crashes during the summer are caused by construction zones.

“The highest fatality months are June, July, and August,” Sicking says. “Make sure you’re not on that list.”

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