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The White House has named Virginia Tech’s Thomas Dingus a “Champion of Change” for his work on transportation.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
The White House has given Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Director Thomas Dingus an award for innovative people called “Champion of Change.”
Federal officials credit Dingus, 55, of Blacksburg and 11 other transportation figures in the country with “exemplary leadership in developing or implementing transportation technology solutions.”
The honorees will collect their awards and hold a panel discussion at the White House on Wednesday , according to information released by the university Monday.
“It’s a very high honor. I’m very excited,” Dingus said.
The Obama administration “champions” are described as ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things “to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” In addressing some of the dozens of pr evious winners, President Barack Obama has said: “Change happens from the bottom up.”
The hazardous nature of texting and driving is understood in scientific terms — that is, that it dangerously multiplies the risk of a crash — in part because of the work of the transportation institute, whose large facility on the Blacksburg campus is adjacent to the Smart Road test track.
With 350 faculty, staff and students , the 25-year-old VTTI has a budget exceeding $40 million. It is the second largest traffic safety research hub at a U.S. university. Dingus has led it since 1996. He holds a Ph.D. in engineering and operations research from Tech and is an endowed professor of civil and environmental engineering at the school.
Dingus traces his passion for traffic safety research to his early interest in the human factors field, which optimizes the interaction of people and machines. During graduate studies at Tech, he explored human factors in auto safety with Walt Wierwille, an emeritus professor of industrial and systems engineering and a mentor.
When it comes to injury prevention, automotive studies are pivotal because “most injuries occur behind the wheel,” according to a presentation Dingus wrote in connection with his award.
Dingus thinks the institute’s best work to date is its naturalist driving studies, which began in the early 2000s and continue today. Using an internally created method, the institute has equipped 4,000 cars, trucks and motorcycles with cameras and electronic sensors in cooperation with drivers who agree to be monitored for months or years at a time. The institute periodically releases findings about the causes of crashes and near-crashes based on the video clips and driver-performance data collected during the monitoring period.
A major finding, that texting while driving a heavy truck increases the risk of a crash or near crash 23 times, “has been touted nationally, from the New York Times to the Ad Council to AT&T,” Dingus wrote. “The ‘23 times’ message helped lead U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a call to end distracted driving.”
Dingus said 39 states and the District of Columbia have banned text messaging by drivers, an acknowledgement of the role that distraction and inattention play in crashes.
But fatigue is another culprit. Tech said this month that fatigue is a cause of 20 percent of crashes, “rather than the 2 or 3 percent previously estimated based on surveys, simulator studies, and test tracks.”
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has cut the number of hours a trucker can work within a week from 82 to 70 based on information gleaned from Tech’s data acquisition system, Dingus said.
In addition, VTTI has released widely publicized studies about teen driving risk. Teens are four times more likely than adults to have a crash or near crash while distracted, Dingus said.
Parents who want to mitigate a teen’s driving risk, Dingus told the Edmunds Safety Conference in 2011, should obtain monitoring equipment, such as that supplied by DriveCam and insurers. Such systems can be set up to detect higher-risk driving and then record video clips and driver-performance data that a parent can use to counsel or sanction a child driver after the fact.
“If you do it right, the child, teenager, learns how to not have the device record data by not speeding, not driving aggressively, things like that,” Dingus said. “Then they’re automatically driving safer to avoid being prosecuted, if you will.”
Owners of commercial fleets can employ the same technology to monitor commercial drivers, he said.
“The bottom line is that Dr. Dingus and the work that he does at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute saves lives,” said Robert Walters, vice president for research at Virginia Tech. “It’s commonplace to see a news report about the dangers of distracted driving, texting while driving, or other hazards, and then hear more about the Smart Road and the research done at Virginia Tech to help keep people safe behind the wheel. Many of these vital insights travel directly from Tom’s institute straight into public policy, and the White House has noticed.”
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