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Autumn 2013 Issue
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Making our roads safer

Everyone knows that high speeds kill people on our roads. But no-one realised the extreme danger posed by even small increases in travel speed until the Centre for Automotive Safety Research (CASR) came up with the proof.

It's just one area of world-class research conducted over the past 40 years by the University of Adelaide centre which has helped prevent numerous injuries and saved countless lives.

Findings by the multidisciplinary centre have had a strong influence on road safety policy, car designs and road layouts since it began work as the Road Accident Research Unit in 1973.

The Centre's initial focus was on understanding more about the specific mechanisms of injury in road traffic crashes. Researchers conducted one of the world's first in-depth accident studies, attending the scenes of many hundreds of crashes.

The work revealed for the first time that adult pedestrians are run under not run over.

"It showed that the shape and impact properties of the car strongly influence the resulting injuries," said CASR Director Professor Mary Lydon.

"This ultimately led to the realisation that there were ways of improving design to protect vulnerable road users. CASR's ongoing research program in this area is unique worldwide in its scope and attention to detail."

Today the research is supported by a new purpose-built Vehicle Safety Laboratory in Kent Town - the only facility of its kind in Australia.

The laboratory focuses on pedestrian crash impacts and is the official testing facility for the pedestrian component of the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP).

Research on pedestrian protection involves computer modelling of the motion of the pedestrian on impact, through to reconstructing head and leg impacts with the vehicle in the laboratory.

These insights are supported by in-depth crash analysis at the scene of accidents. CASR is the only centre in Australia and one of only a handful in the world to conduct such investigations.

Results from the research are crucial in helping manufacturers produce more pedestrian-friendly vehicles and improved road design and speed control.

The centre's main customers are road authorities and compulsory third-party insurers and it receives ongoing support from South Australia's Motor Accident Commission and Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure.

"Providing policy support for transport regulators is a key area because changing legislation is difficult and costly, so policymakers need to know they will get some return for their investment," said Professor Lydon.

Improving levels of vehicle safety is not only about design and technology, but also ensuring that as many vehicles on the road as possible are equipped with such technology.

Consumer programs like ANCAP are very important, but so are influential buyers of large fleets. Their strong purchasing power ensures that if they want a particular safety feature, vehicle manufacturers listen.

"New safety technologies invariably start in the top models of expensive luxury cars and it can take many years before they start appearing in standard vehicles," said Professor Lydon.

"But as soon as buyers for the big fleets demand a particular feature it doesn't take long to appear. Together with the ANCAP program, it's an effective way of making sure outcomes from our research into new vehicle safety technologies are picked up by manufacturers."

An area where CASR has had significant influence over the past 10 years is the relationship between travel speed and crash risk. The work has prompted changes in speed limits and resulted in media campaigns such as Creepers produced by the South Australian Government.

The CASR research showed that, in urban areas, the risk of an injury crash doubles with each 5 km increase above the 60 km per hour speed limit.

The accuracy of CASR's predictions were soon proven. After the state lowered the default urban speed limit from 60 km to 50 km the number of injury crashes dropped by more than 200 a year and pedestrian accidents fell by over 30 per cent.

Limits have also been lowered from 110 km per hour to 100 km in rural areas after CASR showed a 30 per cent fall in accidents with just a 5 km per hour reduction in speed.

"There's a lot of resistance to reducing speed limits, particularly in rural areas, but support increases when you can prove to the community that lives will definitely be saved," Professor Lydon said.

The work of CASR is also helping road engineers to rethink the way that our roadsides are designed, with ramifications for the roadside environment.

Over many years there has been a push to clear trees and other objects from the sides of roads to limit impacts when vehicles run off the road.

But extensive simulation by the centre is demonstrating that safety outcomes are just as good if not better with new barrier technology.

"This is still a work in progress but it has enormous implications for road authorities and communities because people don't like to see trees removed."

Professor Lydon joined CASR five years ago after taking over from Professor Jack McLean who had built the centre's international reputation. Her background in accident research with road authorities and the Australian Road Research Board left her highly qualified to take over leadership of the research centre.

Most recently this includes providing key analytical support for the "next big thing" in road safety - vehicle crash prevention technologies.

"Up until now, vehicle safety technology has been focused largely on injury prevention - vehicle crush, seat belts, interior design, airbags and so on," Professor Lydon said.

"Now the focus is moving more to avoiding the crash in the first place and there's a whole raft of technologies coming to market."

Technologies of the future include everything from active cruise control that keep cars at a safe distance from each other, systems that warn of pending danger and systems that can autonomously brake and steer the vehicle to avoid danger.

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Mary Lydon, CASR Director

Mary Lydon, CASR Director
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