The numbers associated with traffic accidents worldwide are staggering: 1.3 million fatalities every year, and up to 50 million injuries. They’re also the leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. But thanks to the work of UBC Civil Engineering professor Tarek Sayed, those numbers could go down.
Sayed, who received the Prince Michael International Road Safety Award Dec. 8, uses automated video analysis techniques to study near misses and propose improvements to intersections and roads to prevent collisions.
How big an issue is road safety?
There are about 1.3 million people killed every year in road collisions worldwide, and for each one of these fatalities there are about 10 injuries. Engineers have always assumed that it’s not our problem; we feel that we are following standards in designing good roads, and any accidents or fatalities are the road user’s fault. Now we know that we can make changes to the system that can prevent driver error.
It’s more cost-effective to address driver error through road improvements than to have a fatality. Can you imagine a mechanical engineer designing a tool that cuts people’s fingers, and saying it’s not a problem with the machine, but with how people are using it?
How do you track and address accidents and collisions?
Our work has been focusing on proactive road safety management, where we make changes to the road to reduce the consequences of a collision and prevent collisions from occurring in the first place. For many years this was done by examining data on traffic collisions, which is a reactive approach. We had to wait two or three years to observe enough collisions before we could analyze and address them. Now, instead of relying on collision data, we rely on data on near misses.
Over the last 10 years we have developed a technique at UBC that does automated road-safety analysis using computer vision techniques at different locations, intersections or highway segments. We see how people move in space and time, and we calculate near misses. It’s very efficient and we get very detailed information that allows us to gain a better understanding of how these near misses and potential collisions occur. Instead of waiting for years of collision data, we can address potential issues quickly and prevent accidents before they occur.
What makes roads safer?
Giving more information to road users, for the most part, leads to safer roads. We always say that road users should not be surprised. If a driver is used to exiting a freeway on the right, you cannot have an exit on the left without advance warning and signage.
However, there can also be an issue of overwhelming drivers or road users with information. Some of the new technologies in vehicles, like ITS—intelligent transportation systems—can cause anxiety for drivers by overwhelming them with information. There needs to be a balance between how much information is given to the driver and how much attention they can give to the task at hand.
Can you give some examples of locations you have helped make safer?
One of the intersections that we studied was Main and East Hastings in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where there were a huge number of violations, with people crossing the road erratically. It’s very difficult to apply engineering measures to correct this type of behaviour, but we recommended reducing the speed to 30 km/hr and adding better markings. This was implemented by the City of Vancouver in 2011.
In Oakland, California, near misses between pedestrians and vehicles were significantly reduced after implementing a scramble phase in Chinatown, where you stop all vehicles and allow pedestrians to cross even diagonally. In Edmonton, there was a high-collision location at the junction of Yellowhead Trail and Victoria Trail. There were many rear-end collisions and near misses, and very aggressive merging behaviour. We recommended closing the merging ramp and bringing all vehicles to a signalled intersection approach. There was a 92-per-cent reduction in conflicts and no collisions after the change.