Safer Crashes? Federal-GWU Research Center at Leading Edge of Drive to Lessen Accidents' Toll
Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Automotive technology of the future will have sophisticated camera systems instead of mirrors so drivers can monitor road conditions ahead of their own car, according to Nabih Bedewi, a George Washington University professor of engineering and applied science whose job as director of the National Crash Analysis Center involves him in questions of safety and security on roadways and elsewhere.
The center - a partnership between the university and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration as well as DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - relies heavily on high-performance computers and cameras in its research, much of which is about making highways safer with the ever-evolving vehicle designs produced by the motor industry.
"We focus on how to improve cars, systems and highways; we address the total safety problems of highways and cars," Mr. Bedewi says.
One of the center's goals is ultimately to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on U.S. highways. Some 42,000 people die in traffic accidents each year, according to Mr. Bedewi.
Among other projects, NCAC research led to the phasing out of a previous style of safety belt associated with abnormally high amounts of liver laceration in automobile accidents.
Mr. Bedewi - who drives a sporty, high-powered Jaguar - is adamant on the importance of seat belts. Only half-jokingly, he says he would like to see automobiles use a harness-style belt similar to those worn by race-car drivers.
"Seat-belt usage can reduce the chance of a fatality by 70 percent," he says.
One of the hot subjects in his field at the moment is called compatibility - how different-size vehicles - mainly sport utility vehicles and small cars - interact with one another on a highway. The term also could apply to the behavior of vehicles in relation to roadside hardware, such as guardrails and even mailboxes. Specifications for both guardrails and mailboxes have been the focus of recent center studies.
In addition, the center, which is headquartered in Ashburn, Va., and has an outdoor laboratory in McLean, has been working of late on behalf of the Department of State, the Secret Service and the National Capital Planning Commission to test security barriers protecting U.S. embassies and other high-profile government buildings against vehicle bomb attacks. Years of experience have given the center's staff the ability to tackle safety factors involved in installing infrastructure for homeland security.
The challenges with these and other projects often come from the nature of the materials involved. In designing bollards, the knob-topped security posts increasingly used in front of federal buildings, Mr. Bedewi says, the problem is how to keep a bollard from bending on its concrete foundation. Barriers constructed in front of embassies need to be positioned so the building would remain functional in the event of a truck explosion.
The mailbox matter came up at the request of the Federal Highway Administration, which was concerned about possible injuries when vehicles hit the extra-large metal boxes on wood posts that have become popular in suburban areas.
"Kids can't break them with baseball bats, but they are a big weight sitting by the side of the road," Mr. Bedewi says. "You solve one problem by making [mailboxes] bigger, and you get another problem."
An NCAC computer simulation of a worst-case scenario shows the metal box flying into the windshield after being hit by a car. "It's OK to break the wood but not to penetrate the shield," he notes. "We're still doing more studies on this, but what we came back with is a recommendation the boxes should not be mounted on wood posts."
NCAC's outdoor facility, known as FOIL (for Federal Outdoor Impact Laboratory), headed by senior research scientist Abdullatif "Bud" Zaouk, is used one or two times a month for full-scale tests to compare physical and computer models. …