Faculty voice:

Peter Savolainen: Are you an excellent driver?

Oct. 31, 2018

Peter Savolainen is a new MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering.

Did you know that your odds of crashing your vehicle increase by 300 percent when you’re using a cell phone? Your risk is even greater when you take your attention off the road to reach for your coffee mug.

Even seemingly benign tasks, like singing while driving, can increase your crash risk by a factor of 150 percent!

These types of research questions are what drew me into the field of transportation engineering. I am interested in trying to understand why crashes occur, or why we encounter traffic jams for no apparent reason. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this research domain is that everyone travels, almost everyone drives, and, consequently, everyone is an “expert”!

Distracted driver survey results show that as much as 90 percent of the population feels unsafe as a passenger when the driver is using a cell phone. However, half of these same individuals believe that cell phone use does not affect their own driving performance. In the words of “Rain Man’s” Raymond Babbit, it seems that everyone believes that “I’m an excellent driver.”

Drivers tend to overestimate their own capabilities. They also tend to do a poor job of assessing risks posed by the transportation system. In light of these concerns, my research group strives to improve our understanding of road user behavior, particularly how this behavior is affected by changes in the roadway environment.

Research in this area has historically leveraged data from sources such as police crash reports. However, as you can imagine, there are severe limitations to the quality and completeness of the data obtained from these reports.

For example, it is difficult to determine the specific traffic, weather and roadway conditions immediately preceding a traffic crash. While transportation agencies have access to in-pavement and roadside sensors and cameras, additional difficulties arise when trying to integrate these data sources both spatially and temporally.

Fortunately, recent and ongoing technological advances are beginning to overcome these limitations, allowing greater access to very detailed information about the factors that precipitate crash and near-crash events. We will soon be able to discern the fundamental factors affecting travel patterns and behaviors.

I joined MSU in August, in large part, because the university is uniquely positioned to serve as a living laboratory that can play a transformative role in transportation research. As one of the largest university campuses in the United States, MSU is responsible for operating and maintaining its own transportation systems, including roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, transit stops and traffic signals. The university is currently in the process of installing cameras, sensors and "smart" traffic signals across campus.

Collectively, these technologies will allow us to examine a myriad of critical research questions that will help to improve the mobility, safety and accessibility of our transportation systems. Of equal importance, in my first few months since joining MSU, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with world-class researchers in connected and autonomous vehicles, machine learning, public policy, sociology and numerous other fields that are allowing our team to break through to the details of particular importance to transportation.

In the very near future, the broader MSU community will also play an increasingly important role. For example, plans are currently in the works for driverless shuttles that will be able to transport individuals across campus. We are also working to implement solutions that reduce delay and improve safety for all modes of travel, including automobiles, pedestrians, bicyclists and scooters. I am thrilled at the prospect of playing a small part in such efforts under the new MSU Mobility initiative.