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Safer roads and safer rides are among the goals of some University of Tennessee (UT) researchers at the National Transportation Research Center (NTRC).

UT Goal: Safer Trips

Mike Jackson, a UT professor, is paving the way for more durable roads. He is studying ways to improve highway pavement materials and systems. He notes that the design of pavement is currently based on design equations developed from performance tests completed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"Because of the ever-increasing traffic on our highways, we are experiencing an increasing frequency of pavement failure in the form of rutting, cracking, and—ultimately—potholes," Jackson says. "To reduce the public's exposure to reconstruction, rehabilitation, and maintenance activities, we are attempting to identify pavement systems in the laboratory that will last longer on the highway, increasing safety and minimizing costly delays to the traveling public."

Jackson and other researchers are currently evaluating new pavement performance tests in the NTRC's infrastructure materials laboratory. Jackson hopes to identify longer-lasting pavement materials for possible use on the road.

Jackson and his colleagues at the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) are also participating in the construction of a full-scale test track at the National Center for Asphalt Technology (NCAT) in Auburn, Alabama, to evaluate different pavement materials and design principles.

Loaded trucks will be repeatedly run over pavement test sections at the NCAT test track. The results of this full-scale testing will be used by TDOT to further evaluate the performance of Tennessee's pavements.

Jackson will also test these pavement materials in the NTRC lab with special equipment, such as an asphalt pavement analyzer from Pavement Technology, Inc. This accelerated testing device will help researchers evaluate the anticipated performance of different aggregate and asphalt blends in the laboratory. Jackson hopes that once the NTRC lab is outfitted with this and other equipment, new avenues of external funding will open up.

Mike Jackson evaluates the anticipated performance of pavement samples
Mike Jackson evaluates the anticipated performance of pavement samples in this testing device. He hopes to identify longer-lasting pavement materials.

Tyler Kress, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at UT Knoxville, has made important contributions to improving the safety of automobile airbags and understanding injuries associated with personal watercraft.

Since the late 1990s, the U.S. government has required automobile manufacturers to install airbags in all passenger cars and trucks to protect occupants during an accident. Several manufacturers started using airbags as early as the late 1980s. Because the early "one size fits all" airbag design causes serious and sometimes fatal injuries to some children and adults during deployment, newer airbags have been designed to be "smarter." "To minimize injuries," Kress says, "some airbag systems have sensors that detect occupant size, use or nonuse of a seat belt, and crash severity, to determine how the airbags should be deployed."

Kress was one of the human factors researchers who gathered information for the engineers designing the newer airbag systems. He and his colleagues studied people's injuries resulting from airbag deployment and then tried to reproduce the injuries on cadavers and dummies in the lab. They subjected heads of cadavers and dummies to impacts from airbags made from different materials, folded in various ways, and deployed at different speeds. They measured the force, velocity, and pressure of the airbags and assessed the extent of the resulting "injuries."

Tyles Kress measures the dimensions of a dummy head after subjecting it to airbag testing
Tyler Kress measures the dimensions of a dummy head after subjecting it to airbag testing in a laboratory at Southern Impact Research Corporation.

In the mid-1990s Kress and his colleagues drew upon the results of their studies to suggest ways to improve airbags to make them safer and more effective. Kress and four researchers from other universities were invited to present their findings to the National Transportation Safety Board. Since then, he and his colleagues have noted improvements in the commercial airbag.

Kress's airbag research is not, however, limited to road vehicle safety. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a need for a regulation to improve safety features on commercial aircraft. Kress recently completed a paper with a colleague at BF Goodrich that discusses inflatable lap belts as a feasible protective alternative for certain applications.

At the human factors and biomechanical engineering laboratory at NTRC, Kress hopes to continue his work to understand how personal watercraft injuries occur. In his research with the personal watercraft industry, he has collected data on damaged jet skis, accident scenes, and actual injuries.

Kress, who is also associate director of The Engineering Institute for Trauma and Injury Prevention, has created dummies with breakable "synthetic" bones for crash tests, to evaluate designs of products, such as outboard motor propeller guards in watercraft and motorcycle crash bars. He uses sled systems, drop towers, high-speed cameras, velocity detectors, and force and acceleration measurement devices to assess injury potential during "crashes." The goal is to collect information to be used to improve the design of vehicles to minimize injuries to occupants during collisions.

(Wendy Bigham, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program of the University of Tennessee's School of Journalism, contributed information and photographs to this article.)

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Related Web sites

Tennessee Department of Transportation
National Center for Asphalt Technology (NCAT)
National Transportation Safety Board
Federal Aviation Administration

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