Archive for the ‘Risk’ Category

Difficulty Homeostasis

“People in conditions of monotony in a car automatically are going to want to keep themselves stimulated, to make life a little more difficult for themselves.”

From an interesting interview with Michael Regan, adjunct professor for vehicle safety at Chalmers University of Technology in Goteborg, Sweden and a senior research fellow on secondment from the Monash University Accident and Research Centre here in Melbourne, Australia, over at Gerry Gaffney’s User Experience podcast (transcript here).

Posted on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 at 8:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Department of Correlation

Sometimes I honestly don’t understand traffic safety engineering. A random bit from something I was reading:

Motor vehicles and pedestrians can coexist on local residential streets on which both motor vehicle speeds and traffic volumes are low and on-street parking is either prohibited or limited. However, even on these streets the provision of sidewalks can be beneficial in encouraging walking, facilitating social interaction and creating play areas.

Am I wrong or does the first sentence miss the obvious inverse correlation between the presence of parked cars on a street and vehicle speeds on that street? (not to mention parked cars serving as a buffer from wayward cars in traffic).

Posted on Thursday, April 7th, 2011 at 11:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Latest Threat On NYC Streets: Pedestrian Refuges

I’m not sure who actually watches local television news at this point in historical time — I’m picturing a bored Circuit City salesman in front of a wall of LCDs — but it’s just as well, based on the drivel they seem to be serving up, via Streetsblog (which does a nice job of dissecting the usual red herrings of emergency response). It’s shocking that a New York City news outlet can be so pedestrian-blind.

Posted on Saturday, November 6th, 2010 at 2:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Can Multi-Use Paths Be Shared Safely?

I was essentially asked this question recently in reference to a tragic case of a jogger killed by a cyclist in Dallas.

Based on some nastiness I’ve experienced on the Brooklyn Bridge, along the Hudson River — and even hearing stories about how people’s enthusiasm for the NYC DOT’s “Summer Streets” program was dampened by inappropriate speed choice of cyclists through the event — I myself have had doubts over this, and I’m wondering what experiences people have had around the country, what remedies they’ve seen, etc. How’s the sharing going on the new Walkway over the Hudson going, for example?

I know people will answer courtesy, common sense, etc. (as well as not listening to loud music w/ear buds while cycling/running), but are there engineering/design strategies that have been used, particularly at crossings and the like? Should fast-moving cyclists (I don’t know the velocity involved in Dallas) simply stick to the road, even when it’s a less than desirable situation?

This is not to say that the real source of pedestrian or cyclist danger is on multi-use paths, and some of the failings of multi-use paths is that they’re simply too small — the majority of room having been given over to the car. But just wondering about ideas.

Posted on Friday, October 22nd, 2010 at 11:22 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Roundaboutgate in Winnipeg

Reader John reports of a swirling political controversy in Winnipeg: Roundabouts. The details are here (note the archaic phrasing of ‘traffic circles’). Somehow the device that has helped reduce crash rates from Alsace to Australia is, in Winnipeg, causing “chaos.”

I’ve said it before: If a driver cannot handle negotiating clearly labeled rights of way at simple, small intersections at low speed, why are we actually giving them the right to be maneuvering heavy, dangerous vehicles on public streets crowded with other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, etc etc? (and not having the sense to stop for a pedestrian about to cross in an intersection, as the video shows, is not down to the design but to the driver).

“It’s a hazard,” one driver said of the roundabouts. I’m glad he thinks that! Because intersections are hazardous locations! But what proceeded them — four-way stop-sign controlled intersections — are hardly a panacea, and indeed linked to far more fatal crashes than roundabouts.

[UPDATE: Good comments from engineers and others below articulating the on-the-ground realities in Winnipeg, which, I might add, I’ve not been to; I’d be further interested to know the difference between Winnipeg’s treatments and that of Seattle — which the Winnipeg engineers say they’ve based their design on and which seem to not have generated much controversy, and indeed seem to be favored by residents]

Posted on Thursday, October 21st, 2010 at 2:34 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Does Religion Influence Road Safety?

The conclusion of the study is that being a Catholic country or not seems to be as important as being a wealthy country or not. Being a non-wealthy Catholic country leads to more traffic and hence more motor vehicle accident deaths than being a wealthy Catholic country. Being a wealthy Catholic country, however, does seem to lead to more previous traffic term accidents than being a wealthy non-Catholic country.

That’s from: K. Melinder, “Socio-cultural characteristics of high versus low risk societies regarding road traffic safety,” (2007) Safety Science, 45 (3), pp. 397-414.

Posted on Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 at 7:45 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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From an interesting post at CSV, via Marginal Revolution:

This phenomenon, where improved safety spurs on greater risk taking, is known as risk compensation, or “risk homeostasis”. Most of us became familiar with the concept from debates over anti-lock brakes (ABS), but its specter has plagued nearly every attempt to improve automotive safety, from seat belts to night vision. Yet almost nothing about risk compensation – its etiology, its prevalence, its significance – is certain.

To prove the phenomenon even exists, one particularly inspired British researcher had volunteers ride bicycles on a closed course, with half the people wearing helmets and proper attire, and the other half clad in their underwear. Graduate students positioned on the sidelines graded the volunteers performance and tallied any unsafe maneuvers. The results showed that the unclothed group practiced much safer driving habits, thereby supporting risk compensation theory – and Britain’s reputation for eccentricity.”

Posted on Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 at 7:31 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

The first thing that jumps out in this piece is the identification of the victim as “homeless.” A subtle detail, or some kind of implied pejorative — hmm, maybe he was one of those crazy guys you see wandering willy-nilly across the street, and perhaps he was asking for it. Can you imagine the headline: McMansion Owner Struck and Killed by Car in Santa Barbara?

The victim had already been struck by a car before — the driver was cited with failure to yield — but the circumstances here beggar belief:

Castillo, according to McCaffrey, told investigators that he thought the man would clear the intersection before he drove through, but wound up striking the victim with the right front of his car. The victim was reportedly swept up onto the hood of the vehicle before falling to the pavement.

Yes, it’s always a good idea, when approaching an elderly pedestrian, to continue at speed in a multi-ton vehicle towards someone crossing in a crosswalk, owing to your own faith in your driving abilities and your estimation of their walking speed. There’s certainly nothing that can go wrong there, unless, oops, you have an “accident.”

Posted on Thursday, May 20th, 2010 at 9:21 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Girls Against Boys

Random fact of the day, via the WSJ:

State Farm, the nation’s largest insurance company, says that currently its auto coverage premiums for teenage boys are about 40% higher than for girls. In 1985, that gap was about 61%, says Vicki Harper, a spokeswoman for State Farm, which has more than 42 million auto policies. Most girls still get a break on premiums, she says, but “their premium rates reflect there isn’t as much of a difference as the rate for a teenage boy.”

Posted on Thursday, May 6th, 2010 at 8:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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If you want to know why pedestrian fatalities dominate the global traffic safety picture, this CNN clip from Cairo is one of just many places you could start. And please, Cairo, don’t make the mistake of building pedestrian overpasses and underpasses to “fix” the problem.

(thanks vagabond)

Posted on Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at 7:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Honks and Consciousness

Via Nudge, a fascinating article about trying to prevent railway crossing deaths (by pedestrians) using a variety of behavioral cues intended to counter perceptual biases and guide decision-making:

From all this research, Shroff identified three major decision-making principles in operation on the Wadala tracks. “One is a combination of the Leibowitz Hypothesis and the Looming Effect. Large objects appear to move slower than small objects, and people can’t judge their speed,” she says. “Another is the Cocktail Party Effect: The brain isn’t wired to follow two conversations, or do two activities simultaneously. If there are two trains on adjacent tracks, you’ll register one, but not the other.” The third is simply a flight response—a tendency to run, which minimizes good judgement.

To each of these principles, Final Mile tailored a specific “intervention”. A few hundred metres from the Wadala station, Krishnamurthy points to sequences of railway sleepers painted a bright yellow. “That helps your brain get a better idea of distances and how fast a train is covering them, which helps you judge its speed,” he says.

Shortly thereafter, a gaggle of schoolchildren, absorbed in conversation, crosses the tracks, prime material for the Cocktail Party Effect. “So we installed whistle boards just around the bend, telling the motormen to honk,” Krishnamurthy says. Even the honk is carefully calibrated: Two short, rapid honks instead of one long one, because that intrudes into a listener’s consciousness much more effectively.

The first few whistle signs that Final Mile put up—regulation boards made of metal— were promptly stolen. “So we had to create a signboard out of something not worth stealing,” Krishnamurthy laughs. “We had to do an intervention on the intervention!”

At the station itself, Krishnamurthy points to the final intervention—a three-panel photo of a rather alarmed man being gradually run over by a locomotive. This morbid frieze is positioned exactly at the two points where the temptation to cross is powerful, designed to subtly counter the flight response.
“It’s intended to elicit an appropriate emotional memory,” Krishnamurthy says. “We look to faces to figure out situations, so his face is central. We repeated the image, because it catches the eye. And it has to be life-size, not larger than life, because it shouldn’t intrude into the conscious. It should work at an unconscious level.”

Posted on Thursday, March 25th, 2010 at 7:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Unintentional Acceleration

I’m slow to get to this, but this incredible case of a sideways high-speed shunt in the U.K. is about as dramatic a case you can imagine of how divorced a motorist can be from the world around him.

Via the BBC:

In a bid to release her vehicle, she said she pulled on the handbrake and flashed her hazard lights to try to catch the driver’s attention, as well as that of other road users, but she said it took the lorry driver nearly a minute to notice her.

When he did he was “all over the place”, Mrs Williams said, and finally managed to bring both vehicles to a stop on the hard shoulder.

Posted on Monday, March 22nd, 2010 at 2:00 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The ‘Mozart Effect’ and Teen Driving

Reading, via Tyler Cowen, about this controversial classical music behavioral nudge in the U.K. — act badly and you’ll get blasted with Brahms — put me in mind of a way to make things safer for teens (and everyone else) on the road. Since BPMs often seemed tied to RPMs when teens are at the wheel, how about using the car’s increasing electronic integration to hijack the stereo when aggressive driving is detected, pumping in some Sibelius or Chopin to attenuate the raging hormones? (one wonders more broadly about some kind of iTunes ‘genius’ system that measured surrounding traffic density, car speed, etc., and used it tailor musical selections — Satie for that frenetic rush hour scramble at the Holland Tunnel, Brian Eno for those epic tunnels in Norway (ok, wait that’s a bad idea), rousing anthems (e.g., the Pogues) for long, dark quiet roads.

Which reminds me of one last point: The curious power (both as narrative and sense-memory) a song can have in the context of a drive. I once almost drove off the road in rural Maine at night when I first heard the plaintive, haunting voice of Townes van Zandt singing Kathleen:

It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway
Maybe I’ll go insane
I got to stop the pain
Or maybe I’ll go down to see Kathleen.

When I hear that song today I still recall a glowing white line, the dark outlines of tall trees lining the road, glittering moose eyes…

Posted on Tuesday, March 9th, 2010 at 9:51 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Lacking Clarity in Thailand

Richard Stampfle writes:

This is a true picture of a bus in Thailand used to deliver school children to functions. It is representative of many vehicles in Thailand, it is not an exception. I have hundreds more photos I could have used. While we may recognize that the driver cannot see you will find it strange to learn that most Thais find no problem with this picture. I have asked several what is wrong with the picture; one commented that it should be Liverpool not Manchester United on the Glass. One felt the colors were somewhat gaudy but that is a matter of taste. No one commented on the safety issue. When I showed a similar picture at a meeting of the Thailand Global Road Safety Partnership the only suggestion was that I should do some research on the subject and gather sufficient statistics to get the attention of law makers — if indeed this was actually a problem. (There seemed to be some doubt.)

Posted on Wednesday, November 25th, 2009 at 7:30 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Dangerous Trees or Dangerous Drivers?

The Daily News notes that a number of trees are going to be cut down on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx and replaced by a guard-rail, presumably to cut down on the number of fatalities by drivers swerving into trees. “The roadway is very dangerous the way it is,” a local pol said.

But dangerous for whom? As the story notes:

According to Police Department figures, there were 185 accidents — with 29 injuries — from January to July 31 of this year along the parkway. Since 2003, there have been two fatalities, both involving struck pedestrians.

The only certainty in removing trees is that speeds will increase. I’m not sure how those pedestrians were struck, but I would guess the issue is not that the trees failed to protect them, and their risk will only increase with driver speed.

(thanks Streetsblog)

Posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 7:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Roads That Kill, Drivers Who Kill

A few kind readers have sent along an op-ed in the Boston Globe, which the website sums up thusly:

“Traffic injuries kill more than a million people a year worldwide, including 40,000 a year in the United States. Yet when a fatality occurs few people blame the roadway for the death.”

The piece makes some good, worthy points (and it’s important to remember that the concept of safer road design can also entail — gasp — forcing drivers to slow). It’s a bit like the concept of “fire-safe cigarettes.” We can try to educate people not to smoke in bed, we can fine them if they do; or we can build a device that extinguishes itself, lowering the potential for a human mistake.

But it also reminded me of a story in today’s New York Times about the deadly crash on the Taconic Parkway (in which the driver was subsequently reported to have a BAC twice the legal limit; before this, there was a grasping search to blame improper road design or poor signage). The story tries to insinuate that the parkway, designed in the 1920s, is no longer safe — the reason, of course, having less to do with the road itself than that drivers no longer feel compelled to drive the 55 mph speed limit (partially because it became a conduit for a sprawl-based commuter-shed). Curiously, though, the piece notes that the Taconic turns out to be safer than comparison roads, thereby somewhat deflating the sense of urgency that this is a road in need of serious examination.

And yet, after the crash, officials put up additional “wrong way” signs at the particular intersection where the driver joined the highway. A natural response, perhaps, but one done more out of reflex (the “accident black spot” approach) than thought: What about all the other entrances? Given that the driver drove for several minutes, clearly against the flow of traffic, what would another ‘wrong way’ sign have done? The point here is that road engineering can only get us so far in reducing deaths; driver behavior matters.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 2:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Where the Fault Lies in Crosswalk Collisions (Hint: It’s Not the People on Foot)

According to the UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center, more than 80 percent of crosswalk collisions are related to driver behavior – not pedestrian behavior.

From a salutary editorial in the Sacramento Bee.

Posted on Friday, August 14th, 2009 at 5:17 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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No Phones In School Zones

I’m currently in Texas, and just heard an item on the radio about a curious new law: That it’s illegal to use a (hand-held) cell phone in a “school zone.”

And, as an article by Ben Wear (who was on my panel back at the Texas Book Festival last year) in the Statesman notes, cities like Austin now have to (or don’t, it’s still a bit up in the air) post signs alerting drivers to the presence of this law, otherwise police cannot enforce.

Robert Spillar, the City of Austin’s transportation director, said the city has not set aside money for the signs. Nonetheless, it will begin installing them this fall, starting with elementary schools. It could take two years to get them all up, he said.

“I don’t see how we can not put them up,” Spillar said. He said he isn’t sure the mere presence of signs will change driver behavior, and said some sort of education program might be necessary to get the message across. “It’s an unfunded mandate that has our backs against the wall. We can’t enforce it if the signs aren’t up.”

This is the first I’d heard of such a particular distinction being made in a particular zone, and I’m having trouble seeing the reasoning, or the safety impact. The first thought that jumps to mind is that a driver on a cell-phone is hardly likely to pick out a “no cell-phone” sign, much less expeditiously hang up their call as they approach. The second is that signs warning of “school zones” themselves, while a bit better — particularly when backed up flashing lights — than the ubiquitous (and absolutely ineffectual) “Slow Children” signs that are not officially recognized by engineers, tend to be little regarded as well, at least based on various tests in which drivers were still found to be routinely exceeding the speed limit; typically it’s the parent bringing their kids to the very same school. The entire concept of “School Zones” is a bit wanting, really, prone to driver and legal confusion, not to mention that it raises that eternal question: One is supposed to drive slowly and attentively on this stretch past a school, but it’s then OK to accelerate to higher speed a block later (a block on which there may be just as many children)?

And then, on the cell phone issue, we’re again making odd distinctions: We’re admitting that cell phones are a hazard to use when driving around groups of children at schools, but somehow OK when driving among groups of pedestrians or cyclists or children on the blocks in front of their homes — or in fact every other car on the road? And that it’s OK for drivers to zip past schools while talking on their hands-free-not-brain-free unit?

And then there’s the aesthetic blight of all the extra signage — more signs for drivers to ignore — not to mention all the money going to put the signs up, just so a law can be enforced; it seems rather ridiculous that if a state law is passed declaring it illegal to use cell phones in a school zone, one would have to expensively repeat that statement at every already marked school zone. After all, we don’t feel the need to erect signs announcing that driving while impaired is illegal, in school zones or anywhere else.

As always, any experiences or technical clarifications welcome.

Posted on Wednesday, August 12th, 2009 at 5:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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What’s the Riskiest Month to Drive in the U.S.?

The answer, interestingly, is October. That’s what Michael Sivak concludes in a new paper in Traffic Injury Prevention.

March has the lowest fatality rate (8.8 per billion kilometers), followed by February and April. Thus, the risk of a fatality per distance driven in October is about 16 percent greater than the risk in March.

Sivak notes that the factors for seasonal variation in crash risk are, as one might expect, complex — ranging across everything from alcohol consumption to “duration of darkness” to leisure driving (“Leisure driving, which occurs more frequently on unfamiliar roads, at higher speeds, at night, and under the influence of alcohol, is riskier than commuter driving”) to weather (“Inclement weather (e.g., snow and ice), everything else being equal, should increase the risk of driving. However, because
inclement weather also leads to general reductions in speed, the net effect is not clear.”)

In light of all these, October seems a bit strange; not as much vacation driving as during the summer, inclement weather hasn’t kicked in in most places, though the onset of earlier darkness might be an issue (not to mention the outlier day of Halloween).

Posted on Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 at 12:18 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Few Thoughts About ‘On a Crash Course,’ by Miller & Zaloshnja

I’ve finally gotten around to reading ‘On a Crash Course,’ a report by Ted Miller and Eduard Zaloshnja that’s been getting a lot of play in the media. As the Post summarizes:

Bad highway design and conditions are a factor in more than half the fatal crashes in the United States, contributing to more deaths than speeding, drunken driving or failure to use seat belts, according to Ted R. Miller, who co-wrote the 18-month study released yesterday.

Road-related conditions were a factor in 22,000 fatalities and cost $217.5 billion each year, the study concludes. By comparison, Miller said, similar crashes where alcohol was a factor cost $130 billion, speeding cost $97 billion and failure to wear a seat belt caused losses of $60 billion.

Despite being sponsored by a consortium of road-building concerns, who naturally have a vested interest in highway improvements, there are some interesting and commendable points raised, or at least implied. The first is, given that road crashes bear a larger societal cost than congestion, we should be focusing whatever stimulus dollars (too many, in my opinion) are going to roads on indeed bringing up deficient roadways to modern safety standards, rather than building new roads. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.

Another thing that caught my eye was the high figure of deaths attributed to roadway condition: “Roadway condition is a contributing factor in more than half—52.7 percent—of the nearly 42,000 American deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes each year and 38 percent of the non-fatal injuries. In terms of crash outcome severity, it is the single most lethal contributing factor—greater than speeding, alcohol or non-use of seat belts.”

This surprised me, as any number of previous studies, including the famous (and much more comprehensive) Indiana Tri-Level Study, as pictured below, paint a different picture of causality.


Posted on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 at 3:46 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



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