A Look Back at How the Texas A&M Transportation Institute Has Reshaped Global Transportation Infrastructure
DURATION 3 minute read
As the largest university transportation research organization in the United States, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) has developed a range of transportation innovations that have reshaped driver safety across the globe. Many of us do not think twice about these transportation features and how they were specifically designed to protect us.
I had the honor of sitting down with Dennis Christiansen, Former Director of TTI, to discuss the innovations to come out of TTI that have changed transportation at the state, national and international levels. He spent 50 years with TTI where he saw the development and implementation of ground-breaking safety features ranging from guardrail end treatments to managed lanes.
Below are a few transportation innovations to come out of TTI:
How do Crash Cushions Work?
In the late 1960s, TTI transformed an abandoned Air Force base into a vehicle crash test site that is now home to the largest crash test program in the country. One of the many globally adopted innovations to come out of this program was crash cushions.
TTI discovered the need for crash cushions after several single-vehicle accidents occurred at exit ramps where a driver collided with a concrete wall. Crash cushions, also known as impact attenuators, are designed to stop a moving vehicle at a safe distance from the concrete wall to reduce damage to vehicles and motorists during a collision.
Texas originally started using steel drum crash cushions in the late 1960s. Through the 1970s, TTI performed extensive field observations and research to improve the performance and geometry of these early impact attenuators. This early research was a key contributor to defining the value of these important safety features. Because of this, we now have a crash cushion of differing materials, shapes, and configurations that help to make our highway systems safer.
Utilizing HOV Lanes
The City of Houston realized it could not build its way out of congestion following the Sunbelt migration in the 1970s. High occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes were a little-known concept at the time but Houston METRO and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) asked Dennis and the team at TTI to investigate the feasibility of implementing HOV lanes across the city to help manage congestion.
As a result of TTI’s research, a contraflow lane project was implemented in 1979 on the North Freeway that borrowed a lane from off-peak direction traffic for busses and vans traveling in the peak direction. The project was a success and led to a large-scale commitment to HOV lanes in Houston. Now, Houston’s HOV lanes represent the most extensive network of barrier-separated HOV lanes in the United States.
Saving Lives with the ET-2000 Guardrail
The ET-2000 guardrail end treatment is one of the most widely adopted and lifesaving innovations to come out of TTI. Most drivers have seen the yellow and black striped endcap device on guardrails and not given them a second thought, but the patented design has saved the lives of drivers across the world.
Safety researchers designed the ET-2000 guardrail end treatment to absorb the kinetic energy from a vehicle upon impact. When a vehicle hits a guardrail’s end cap, it curls up and dissipates the forward momentum of the colliding vehicle. The technology performed flawlessly during its first real collision in 1991 – leading the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to approve and use the safety innovation on all federal-aid construction and reconstruction projects for freeways and major roadways across the United States.