When you drive at night, you are three times more likely to die in an automobile crash compared to driving during daylight hours. It’s a fact for all age groups, but it’s especially true for teenagers and the elderly. Inexperience and slower reaction times behind the wheel are contributing factors, but one of the main problems associated with nighttime dangers involves changes in our vision.
“When the sun goes down, we all have a harder time with depth perception and seeing the road and the environment around us,” says John Mounce, director of the Center for Transportation Safety. “Throw into the mix the glare from approaching headlights, unfamiliar and poorly lit roadways, as well as older street signs and roadway markings that don’t reflect light well, and you have the makings of a dangerous situation.”
That process of being able to see street signs and pavement markings at night (called retroreflectivity) is a huge factor in nighttime driving safety. Street signs, for example, are made with either small glass beads or micro-sized prisms that reflect light from our headlights back to our eyes. It makes the sign appear bright and more visible.
In March of last year, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) opened a unique Visibility Research Laboratory inside the Institute’s State Headquarters and Research Building on the Texas A&M University campus. The lab is the first of its kind in a university setting and consists of a 125-foot-long corridor that has numerous research capabilities, including the testing of materials used for traffic signs and pavement markings. With the aid of the lab and its equipment, researchers are able to determine if a myriad of nighttime related products provide adequate visibility without creating glare by being too bright. Researchers can also evaluate the durability of pavement marking materials and the visibility properties of headlamps, roadway lighting and sign lighting.
“We have been busy since we opened the doors,” says Research Engineer Paul Carlson, who manages the new. laboratory. Carlson is a nationally known visibility scientist, and his research has led to significant changes in policies and standards. It was his idea to create an indoor laboratory that would simulate night time conditions in a stable environment . After just a year in operation, the Visibility Research Laboratory has already paid for itself.
Carlson’s passion for visibility research was reinforced years ago when he was examining a dark stretch of roadway where experimental markings were being used.
“The product failed and the road was dark and eerie,” Carlson recalls. “You could sort of make out where the road was because of the wheel tracking in the pavement , but it was clear that this was a dangerous environment . It made me realize how important our research really is.”
The Visibility Research Laboratory is a highlight for visitors of TTI. In January, Carlson conducted a tour of the facility for new Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, who spent most of a day learning about the Institute.
In 2010, CTS released details of a nationwide study showing that even though overall driving deaths have declined, fatalities at night increased. The study was unveiled by researchers with the center’s Teens in the Driver Seat (TDS) program who studied data from 1999 to 2008.
“Driving at night is a common risk factor for all drivers, but it is particularly dangerous for young drivers,” TDS Director Russell Henk said of the findings. “When you add the nighttime danger, you create the perfect storm. And, that storm is much more severe for teenage drivers, largely because of their lack of driving experience.”