When Hero is in the Job Description

A young man with a blue background bound by a half circle. A family riding bikes is behind the man.

Each year in the United States, thousands of pedestrians and bicyclists are tragically injured or killed in crashes involving motor vehicles. What if it was your job to find a way to prevent these crashes and save lives? How would you go about doing it?

At the University of California, Berkley, doctoral student Frank Proulx is asking that exact question. He and his team are researching bicycle and pedestrian safety, which he hopes will help to save lives and encourage more people to live an active lifestyle.

“What people are talking about more and more these days,” Frank said in an interview with Fast Forward, “Is changing the way we transport ourselves, because it has a big impact on how we feel and how we live.”

“What drew me to transportation in general is that it’s something that people interact with every day. I think it has a lot of impact on quality of life.”

Frank and his team are collecting and analyzing scientific data that will aid lawmakers and city planners across the nation in building safer, more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities.

Screenshot image from video interview with Frank Proulx.

Click a button to watch an interview with Frank Proulx.

“We’ve got policies throughout government these days trying to encourage people to walk or bike,” he said. “If the number of crashes goes up with the number of people walking or biking, we need to deal with and reduce the risk. To do that we need to have a good understanding of what types of facilities are more or less risky.”

By examining accident records and police reports from across the nation, Frank and other researchers look for “hot spots” for bicycle and pedestrian crashes. They can then look at these locations closely to determine why crashes might be occurring more frequently there. For example, if City A has a high number of crashes and also has a low number of bicycle lanes, it could be a clue to researchers that fewer bike lanes is a risk factor for accidents.

But—there’s a catch.

“If you just look at the number of crashes that are happening it doesn’t really tell you the full story,” Frank said. “You need to look at the number of crashes per the number of people.”

Researchers must first determine whether a location is actually higher-risk, or if there is just an above-average number of bicyclists and pedestrians in the area (which would make crashes more likely by default). To do so, they use high-tech sensor technology called “automated detection.”

Passive infrared sensors, for example, can detect the heat given off by a jogger, while piezoelectric strips emit an electrical signal when rolled over by a bicycle tire. These and other types of sensors connect to a computer, which collects the information and tells researchers approximately how many travelers were in the area in a given period of time.

Using all of these clues, the researchers have more accurate information to share with lawmakers and city planners, which could ultimately lead to safety improvements—like new traffic laws or pedestrian walkways, for instance.

After finishing his doctoral degree, Frank—who is an avid bicyclist and trail runner, himself—says he plans to become a university professor or work for a research organization. His advice to Fast Forward readers? Look for a career that is meaningful to them.

“I just had a feeling that I wanted to be working on something more immediately relevant,” Frank said.

Aaron Mack
Fast Forward: Volume 2 Issue 3 – Public and Active Transportation