Virginia Tech Magazine
Spring 2008

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute

In the United States, roadways have evolved from a means to get around to the lifeblood for everyday America. Since the invention of the automobile, more than 4 million miles of highways, city streets, and neighborhood roads have been built nationwide, providing people with the flexibility to live and travel anywhere and the luxury of obtaining goods from across the country at local stores.

Along with the convenience of these roadways, however, come serious problems. States spend billions of dollars a year on maintenance and new construction, and traffic congestion adds an annual average of 38 hours to a worker’s commute, resulting in wasted time and increased environmental impact. And the toll is greater than time or money--more than 40,000 people die every year on roadways, including more than 7,000 teens and children.

"Transportation research isn't particularly flashy," says Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) since 1996. "It's the kind of thing that's not an immediate problem until you're directly affected or inconvenienced--you miss an important meeting because of traffic problems, your car is damaged from poorly maintained roads, or, in the most tragic case, you lose a loved one in a crash that could have been prevented with safety countermeasures."

Finding solutions to transportation challenges is a passion at VTTI, where more than 260 faculty, staff, and students in nine centers and groups are working every day to save lives, time, and money. During the nearly 20 years since its inception, the institute has proven itself to be a leading transportation research center nationally and internationally by making that passion a reality.

VTTI's projects span a wide range of areas, including intersection safety, heavy-truck driver fatigue, teen-driver safety, pavement properties, traffic modeling, transportation policy, and injury biomechanics. Last year, VTTI's growth in research awards, with more than $22 million in committed funding, set an annual awards record at Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute's Smart Road
Virginia Tech Transportation Institute's Smart Road
Locally, VTTI is known as the home of the Virginia Smart Road, a 2.2-mile advanced test-track facility that opened in 2000.
"Although we're obviously pleased to see such an increase in awards, it means more than money to us," notes Dingus. "Increased awards are directly related to the impact we can make in improving surface transportation safety and mobility. Our research has produced results that have a significant impact on national policy, and the industry is encouraged by what we do and is excited to see more."

VTTI's funding comes from a variety of sources, including federal agencies, state departments of transportation, and private industry. Results from the institute's research give lawmakers and executives data to aid in making educated decisions to improve the safety, reliability, and convenience of cars, heavy trucks, and the transportation infrastructure.

In 2007, VTTI sought and won the first phase--$8.2 million of a project estimated to total $20.9 million--to research new technologies that can prevent crashes at intersections. The results will likely put in motion countermeasures to save many of the 14,000 lives that are lost in intersection-related crashes each year.

VTTI was recognized worldwide for its groundbreaking 2006 study in the Washington, D.C., area using naturalistic research. The 100-Car Study set a precedent that gave way to a new, larger-scale naturalistic study sponsored by the National Academies of Science and administered by the Transportation Research Board. VTTI is working on the planning phase of the study, which will have a wider demographic and geographic range to further explore crash causation. The 100-Car Study also helped to earn VTTI an award for a teen-driving naturalistic study geared toward exploring how driving habits change during the first 18 months of licensure.

The transportation industry is not the only area that has picked up on VTTI's expertise--research faculty members are widely recognized for their work with the national media. VTTI researchers have been featured in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Los Angeles Times, and on CNN, MSNBC, and all three national networks' morning and nightly news programs.

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute's Smart Road
View from the Smart Road control room
Lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, and educators also turn to VTTI to find experts in areas ranging from driver distraction to roadway lighting in foggy conditions. In 2001, for example, Dingus had the honor of testifying before a congressional subcommittee about distracted driving. Police departments frequently ask for crash-causation study information that will help their officers investigate crashes. Driving instructors seek information to help them teach teen drivers about the risks for new drivers and how to stay safe as drivers and passengers. Both groups also request information on how to train teen and adult drivers in ways to handle run-off-road situations and not overcorrect--a common problem that causes many accidents and fatalities.

Locally, VTTI is known as the home of the Virginia Smart Road, a 2.2-mile advanced test-track facility that opened in 2000. Along with the institute's two buildings that house office space, garages, a machine shop, and data labs, the Smart Road is an invaluable resource for advanced testing. VTTI’s facilities allow researchers to study driving in both controlled environments with the weather-making capabilities of the Smart Road and naturalistic environments with advanced data acquisition systems developed in-house and recognized worldwide.

Part of VTTI's mission is to educate the community. Each year, more than 2,100 people flock to its open house and School Day events, held in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Transportation. These events allow students and the general public to take a ride on the Smart Road and see the weather-making equipment in action, peek inside an instrumented vehicle, watch VTTI’s specialized system capture data, and observe as dispatchers in the control room carefully regulate the day-to-day operation of the Smart Road.

"Virginia and the nation are facing an increasing volume of both car and truck traffic, which is generating substantial wear and tear on our transportation infrastructure, creating significant losses in productivity, and hindering efforts to improve safety," Dingus says. "The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, along with the Virginia Smart Road facility, is uniquely positioned to answer the nation’s call for safer and more efficient transportation."

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Katie Thacker is a public relations and marketing specialist, and Jayme Shepherd is a communications assistant; both work at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

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