Road expert influences drivers

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Tamahere’s resident road safety expert Sam Charlton has been instrumental in re-designing roads in Hamilton and Auckland to make them safer.

Sam Charlton - redesigning roads to prompt safer driving

Just by changing the way suburban roads look, the Waikato University Associate Professor told science writer David Riddell, the university’s Traffic and Road Safety (TARS) Research Group has been able to reduce speeds on residential streets without changing the speed limit.

Charlton, who lives in the historic Martyn house in Pencarrow Rd, said the Hamilton City Council-run Safer Speed Areas project brought the TARS group in to help come up with ways to reduce speeds to 40km/hr in several residential areas after a successful project in the Auckland suburbs of Point England and Glen Innes.

Four or five Hamilton neighbourhoods had been identified as already having safe speeds, and the idea was to add some road markings and signage that would serve as a way of linking all these areas, he told Riddell.

“Ordinarily these neighbourhoods look very different, so we’re asking if there’s some way we can make them look similar to one another so that when you enter one you go, ‘Oh it’s one of those,’ and you drive in a particular way. If we can establish that then we can begin to apply it to other areas.”

Riddell takes up the story.

The project follows on from a recent TARS project resulting in the re-design of roads in the Auckland suburbs of Point England and Glen Innes. Dr Charlton says New Zealand has not done a good job of distinguishing between roads that have different functions, something that Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have made concerted efforts to achieve. Just by changing the way roads in these suburbs looked, he says, they were able to reduce speeds on residential streets to 30km/hr.

“We think about what we’re doing maybe 10 or 20 per cent of the time; the rest of the time we drive on autopilot. And there are certain cues we learn that can be applied to driving habits automatically. We tried that approach in Auckland and it worked very well. The speeds reduced where we wanted them to, and that happened without changing the speed limit.”

Removing road markings from residential roads may seem a counter-intuitive way to make roads safer, but this has the effect of reducing driving speeds, and focuses the driver’s attention closer to the car.

“Then on the collector roads we put in flush medians, pedestrian islands, bike lanes, and really amped up the delineation so it looked quite different, and encouraged forward visibility.”

The same solutions may not work in a different city, he says, because roads have different characters. “In Auckland we found local roads that were functioning as they should, and we made other roads that weren’t functioning properly look more like the ones that were working. They became linked as a class because they all looked the same. So we were leveraging on correct driver behaviour where it was already working, and bringing the roads that were out of sync into line.”

The approach has led to processes and rules which have now been incorporated into planning guidelines for new subdivisions in New Zealand.

Dr Charlton says many drivers have a very generalised style of driving which they adopt in a wide range of situations. “It’s a very lazy driving style. We’ve shown it’s possible to get drivers to drive a certain way on one kind of road, and a different way on another kind of road, even without making them work hard to do it. It’s a very natural thing to do, but we have to provide the cues about when to do that.”

Much of the group’s work centres around a driving simulator which the university has developed over the past 16 years. Originally little more than a seat and dashboard with a screen in front, the simulator is now a full-sized BMW surrounded by screens and with computer displays in the rear-vision “mirrors”.

“We’ve developed something we’re quite proud of on a shoestring budget; it’s a number eight wire story. We can do anything from recreating a stretch of road, to building a particular road that piques our interest. We’ve helped drivers come up with various kinds of strategies for risky roads, rural roads in particular, and we may be doing something very shortly on rural road intersections and different kinds of signs.” Volunteers with full drivers’ licences are required for two upcoming studies, Dr Charlton says.

“The government has said there needs to be more research on the effects of alcohol at low levels before they’d consider reducing the limit from .08 to .05, so we’ve got a student’s masters thesis on that subject. And there’s another study looking at the general effects of drivers becoming familiar with roads, and how the things they notice change with familiarity.”

He says they don’t want to limit their research to university students. “We are always recruiting drivers from outside, because we want this to be about average drivers, not just 18 to 24-year-old drivers.”

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