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Under the Microscope: We talk to TRL's chief safety scientists

Date: 11 December 2017   |   Author: Rachel Boagey

TRL's chief scientists speak to Rachel Boagey about their thoughts on the future of road safety, and how the organisation is working to improve and change this.

Fully autonomous cars could significantly reduce the number of people who die as a result of road collisions, but until that point, the figure has reached an alarming 25,000 deaths each year.  

Just like stepping into a prestigious university, when you walk through the doors of the Transport Research Laboratory in Wokingham, the buzz of intelligent conversation almost spills out onto the street. It's comforting to know that these are the people who are working hard to significantly improve safety on our roads. 

Shuttle Front On

Many are scientists, PhD graduates, engineers, consultants and technical specialists, but almost all are safety experts. They provide the critical insight and data that contributes to commercial and government sector mobility and transport projects, to inform public safety decision-making
and legislation. 

Two of the organisation's safety experts explained to granitekitchen how it goes about its daily business, work that inevitably will have a lasting effect on road safety for years to come. 

An impartial voice 

Independence is a key thing to know about TRL: it prides itself on providing impartial advice to the transport industry. The aim is to significantly improve safety, and decrease the number of people unnecessarily injured and killed on UK roads, explains Shaun Helman, TRL's head of
transport psychology. 

Helman has done lots of fleet-focused work in the past, and references the mid-90s as a time when people became interested in road safety due to the popularity of company cars. 

"We were working on accident statistics and began to ask what company car drivers represent in terms of risk. Unfortunately, even after you account for the fact that they drive more miles, it works out that they're having more crashes. The narrative at TRL at this period was that a third of crashes involved someone driving for work," he says. 

Helman explains that fleet safety is as big of a problem today as it was in the '90s, but now the challenges presenting themselves are considerably different. 

Road Accident

"TRL's recorded 'journey purpose' for people involved in injury crashes shows that around 25% of casualties are in a collision involving somebody driving for work or commuting. Also, the people getting injured are not those driving for work, but other road users, especially for higher injury severities," he says.

In 2011, the organisation carried out a systematic review for the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, looking into the different measures taken by fleets to reduce risk. "What we found is that there really is no evidence out there that the things fleets are doing to reduce risk actually work," Helman says. 

From this study, some risk factors were discovered, including distraction, fatigue and time pressure. "We realised if we target those with interventions, that's probably the way to go. You need good management of your risk and good leadership, and that's what we aim to provide to the industry," he says.

Working hard to reduce risk 

Most recently, TRL has undertaken a strategic review for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, also known as RoSPA, along with University College London. Helman explains, "We spoke to businesses and looked at data, and we discovered that driving for work is not managed in the same way as health and safety at work is. Businesses often don't see driving as a risky behaviour, even though it clearly is. Basically, it's the poor relation of health and safety." 

For more than 50 years, TRL has played a part in gathering in-depth data on road collisions to understand their causes and describe how people are injured. It does this on behalf of the UK's Department for Transport.

Richard Cuerden, director at TRL Academy, specialises in types of technology, such as 'platooning', that the organisation has found would significantly reduce collisions and deliver a wide range of safety benefits to all road users. 

"Increasingly, more sophisticated data is collected by TRL to understand the nature and causes of today's collisions and injuries. Crucially, this evidence is used to identify the future prevention and mitigation countermeasures, which is a holistic approach, covering road users, vehicles and the road or environment,"
says Cuerden.

Effective for cost and safety

TRL's vehicle safety work has significantly evolved since the '90s and the organisation now works with the European Commission, which has the responsibility for type approval for all vehicles sold in the EU. 

TRL aims to help the Commission understand which safety technologies could be cost-effective. The measures being evaluated include autonomous emergency braking (AEB), alcohol interlocks, intelligent speed assistance (ISA), lane-keeping assist (LKA), driver drowsiness and distraction monitoring, and a range of crashworthiness improvements, including more protection in the event of a collision for pedestrians.

Gateway

Cuerden explains that TRL measures the cost of the number of collisions and casualties on the roads, and suggests how much it would cost for four manufacturers to fit specific systems, such as AEB, to all of their cars and vans. "We can therefore suggest how much this would cost the industry and consumers, as well as what the societal savings would be if the casualties we predict were monetised," he says. 

"In terms of the potential to have real-world impact, this project is very significant and one I'm really proud that TRL is contributing to. We are absolutely impartial and restrict our advice to the Commission to technical topics only, and the independent cost benefit we provide can be used to develop future policy options."

Helping vulnerable road users 

In the EU, one big challenge is protecting vulnerable road users, and systems that help to avoid collisions with a pedestrian or cyclist could provide some important advances for road safety. 

"Over the past two decades, we have improved safety for people inside the vehicle, but we have been less successful at protecting people outside of the vehicle in the event of a collision," says Cuerden. "What that's meant over time is casualties have come down, but the proportion of [injured] pedestrians and cyclists is getting bigger."

He explains that if, with help from TRL, the Commission identifies cost-effective policies, these will be documented in a co-decision act. If supported by MEPs and the European Council, this will raise the minimum vehicle safety standards we see on roads today. "For fleet users and buyers, this will help to standardise the levels of safety and democratise driver assistance systems for all road users," Cuerden says.

So what will this mean for fleets? "If you're a fleet, when you buy vehicles it will mean they will all have the same level of safety. Now, when cars from different manufacturers are bought, some may come with AEB, but some may not. It will level the playing field, it will be easier for fleets and will bring all cars to the same standards," says Cuerden. 

An autonomous future

The introduction of new safety standards could result in the standard fitting of camera and sensor technology, according to Cuerden. This would mean the cost of the hardware and associated software will drop. "These are the building blocks for the next generation of autonomous vehicles, and there is the potential for the automotive industry in Europe to take the lead on a global basis," he says.

TRL is keen to build on its heritage and contribute to the next generation of improvements to vehicle safety standards that will be based on robust evidence that it is collecting now, as part of the creation of London's Smart Mobility Living Lab, where connected and automated vehicles are being trialled. 

The autonomous trials in Greenwich, also known as the GATEway project, are part of this research and TRL is a partner in the scheme. "This research will enable autonomous technologies to continue to develop despite the fact that legislation is currently holding it back," says Cuerden.

Of course, it would be counter-productive to introduce a regulation that limits the potential to develop an automated system three years from now, Cuerden explains. "The rules that work well protect people today, and don't stop future enhancements and innovations - they are
technologically agnostic."

In fact, current regulations will need to be completely rethought for automated vehicles. "That's why designing the way the rules apply now is important, to consider readying ourselves for the future rules for autonomous vehicles," Cuerden concludes.



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