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K-State engineering professor examines factors leading to fatal automobile accidents


Research in Florida and Kansas

Driving in rural areas can be hazardous to your health. Many factors contribute to the severity of automobile accidents. Sunanda Dissanayake, assistant professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, said some factors continually and significantly contribute to the severity of accidents.

In her most recent research, Dissanayake studied rural highway crashes in Kansas. A previous study looked at factors contributing to the severity of single-vehicle crashes in Florida. According to data from the Kansas Accident Reporting System, 75 percent of fatal highway crashes are in rural areas. "Most of the funding used to take preventative measures is used in urban areas, and the rural areas tend to be neglected," Dissanayake said. "We cannot neglect these areas, even though it is a challenge to take precautions and enforce rules on the long stretches of highway in rural areas."

Dissanayake said four factors were consistently most significant in contributing to fatalities in rural highway crashes -- driving under the influence, driving at higher than the posted speed limit, not using a seat belt and being ejected from the vehicle.

In a previous study, Dissanayake studied factors contributing to the severity of single-vehicle crashes in young and older drivers in Florida. She found the same four factors to be consistently the most significant in this study.

She said these results have practical implications in Kansas.

"In Kansas, police officers cannot stop a driver for not wearing a seat belt," Dissanayake said. "My research shows that seat belt usage is very important in reducing the severity of injuries suffered in a crash. This could be used as the basis for introducing a primary seat belt law, in which police officers can stop you for not wearing your seat belt."

Dissanayake said speeding and driving under the influence require strict enforcement to prevent fatalities. "Some people are pushing toward increasing the posted speeds on our highways," she said. "If you drive faster than the limits posted now and crash, the severity of injuries suffered in the accident is significantly higher."

Dissanayake mentioned three methods for taking precaution against factors contributing to crashes -- engineering, enforcement and education. She said engineering-related countermeasures could be used to make curves, grades and roads in general safer. She said enforcement of laws is important, especially in the areas or situations shown to be more likely to contribute to a severe accident.

Dissanayake said some people don’t know the effects of their actions, such as not wearing a seat belt or driving over the posted speed limit. She said it’s important to educate people about the factors that contribute to accidents, especially those that contribute to making an accident fatal.

She presented her findings on rural highway crashes in Kansas Jan. 11 at the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The study was funded through the Mack-Blackwell Transportation Center at the University of Arkansas, which receives funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Her research on factors affecting severity of single-vehicle crashes in young and older drivers was published in the Journal of the International Association of Traffic and Safety Sciences in November 2004.

Sunanda Dissanayake | EurekAlert!
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