Doug Gabauer hopes to reduce the grim number roadside fatalities each year by improving the design of guardrails, bridge rails and other roadside safety structures.

Doug Gabauer

Every year, 40,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes in the United States. One-third of the fatalities result from a vehicle leaving the roadway.

Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Doug Gabauer is hoping to change those statistics by improving the design of guardrails, bridge rails and other roadside safety structures.

"If the vehicle does leave the road, you want it to be a relatively forgiving environment," he said. Gabauer doesn't design guardrails per se, but he has examined the criteria used to evaluate them.

His research has benefited from something most people probably don't even know is in their cars – event data recorders. Similar to the black boxes used to figure out what happened after a plane crash, the devices record how fast the car was moving just before the crash and how rapidly it decelerated during the crash. Car manufacturers started including the devices along with airbags first installed in the mid-1970s, which need the information to know when to deploy.

Before the recorders were used, real world data on roadside crashes had to be deduced solely from after-the-fact clues such as tire marks left at the site. With the recorders, Gabauer has more complete data with which to work.

"Traditionally, detailed vehicle velocity information during a crash has been limited to staged crash tests," Gabauer said. "The recorders tell us what happened in real world crashes where we also know what happened to the people involved. This allows us to better understand how an occupant was injured in a particular crash with the intent of preventing injury in future crashes."

Gabauer's research may soon take a new direction, thanks to prices at the pump.

"With gas prices as high as they are, motorcycle sales have been going through the roof," Gabauer said. "In 2005 for the first time, motorcyclists accounted for more than half of the U.S. guardrail fatalities." The change is significant, because traditionally guardrails have been designed and tested for cars, not motorcycles.

Posted Sept. 22, 2008

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