Iowa State Professor Drives Research into Safer Weather-Related Travel

December 7, 2005

Tom Maze regularly travels the interstate between Ames and the Twin Cities. So he knows when it’s a good idea to delay a trip until the snow stops and the plows clear a path.

He also knows the National Academy of Sciences estimates as many as 7,000 deaths per year are associated with weather-related traffic accidents. And he knows weather-related crashes in Iowa annually add up to more than $240 million in economic losses.

Maze, an Iowa State University professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, will direct a new research center focused on finding better and safer ways to travel whenever weather is a problem.

The center’s goal is to get scientists and engineers working together for a better understanding of how weather impacts transportation systems. That can lead to better ways to maintain roads, design infrastructure, share information and manage transportation systems.

“Reducing the economic and human losses due to weather-related crashes provides an opportunity to positively impact Iowans and Iowa’s economy,” says the proposal to establish the Center for Weather Impacts on Mobility and Safety at Iowa State’s Center for Transportation Research and Education.

“Beyond Iowa and the Midwest, the recent disasters that resulted from hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the titanic logistical and personal transportation blunders that occurred in the wake of these disasters have highlighted the need to better understand transportation weather and to better prepare transportation students for weather-related issues they may encounter in their careers.”

Maze said Iowa State researchers are already studying weather’s impacts on transportation. Maze and Research Engineer Zach Hans, for example, are studying winter crash trends for the Iowa Department of Transportation. They’ll analyze 10 years of crash data to find out where accidents are occurring on Iowa’s state and federal highways.

The center could also position Iowa State to attract more weather-related transportation research. The $286.4 billion, five-year federal transportation bill signed by President Bush in August includes $5 million per year for weather-related research.

Maze said Iowa State is a natural for that kind of research. Because of its agriculture programs, the university has expertise in the science of weather and its impacts at ground level. And Iowa State’s departments of civil, construction and environmental engineering; logistics, operations and management information systems; and community and regional planning all do transportation research.

Gene Takle, an Iowa State professor of geological and atmospheric sciences and agronomy, will serve on the new center’s executive committee. He said the center is an opportunity for scientists who study weather and engineers who study roads and transportation to work together to make travel better and safer in bad weather.

There are certainly improvements that can be made. During a recent trip from Minnesota, Takle said he counted 27 vehicles in the ditch because of snowy weather.

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