Michael Knodler Jr., a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and the director of the UMass Transportation Center, has been selected to receive a UMass Public Engagement Project (PEP) Fellowship for the coming year. “It is with great pleasure that I write to you on behalf of the PEP program to offer you a Spring 2019 Faculty Fellowship,” wrote Dr. Lisa M. Troy, the director of the PEP Fellowship Program and director of the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. “This award is a strong expression of our organization's confidence in your potential to reach broader publics with your research.”
The Public Engagement Project supports and trains faculty members to use their research to contribute to social change, inform public policy, and enrich public debate. Scholars learn new skills from experts and from each other to improve their communication and engagement with the media, community groups, policymakers, and practitioners.
Knodler’s wide-ranging transportation research affects the public in numerous significant ways. “Simply put, transportation impacts each person, every day,” he wrote in his PEP application. “As only a few examples, consider both the direct and indirect impacts of transportation economically, socially, and medically. Embedded within each of these topics is the reliance of the public on transportation infrastructure, operations, and safety.”
Knodler added that “My research focuses upon the connected nature of these topics and incorporates elements of human factors that account for the abilities and limitations of transportation system users. I believe my research program reflects the diverse nature of transportation topics with approximately 100 funded projects ranging from safety data to roadway designs to traffic signage and signals.”
As one good example, Knodler and his colleagues have developed a traffic safety data warehouse that contains more than 14 unique datasets useful in understanding traffic safety. Examples of the datasets include crash data, citation data, and medical data, as well as the datasets that allow for normalization.
“More importantly, we use these datasets to identify high crash locations, to evaluate the impacts of implemented safety measures, and to make recommendations of countermeasures that can be employed to improve safety,” said Knodler. “Over 30,000 people continue to die annually along U.S. roadways, and most everyone knows someone who has tragically died in a car crash. It continues as my research mission to help mitigate this negative impact on society.”
Another good example is the longstanding history in the world of driving simulation within the Arbella Insurance Human Performance Lab.
“Within the full-scale driving simulator we are able to evaluate driver comprehension and performance under a number of different scenarios,” said Knodler. “For example, the flashing yellow arrows now used ubiquitously for permissive left turns we first evaluated in the driving simulator (my dissertation). We have also used the simulator to evaluate the relationship between driver speed and roadway design, driver understanding of bicycle infrastructure, and, more recently, driver trust of automated vehicles.”
In Knodler’s current work, he has begun attempting different ways of engaging the public. “I think I know two things about my public engagement interests,” Knodler explained. “First, there is a genuine public interest and often misperception on many transportation topics. Second, I would really love for the engagement to be bidirectional. I would love to hear from the public as I also work to share some of my experiences with them.”
Recently, Knodler worked to create a public information video series called The Transportation Take-a-Way. The video series covers a myriad of topics on different facets of transportation such as: how speed limits are set; how bike share programs work; and how pretreating roadways improves winter operations. The first video, The Difference between a Rotary and a Roundabout, generated a decent amount of traction and was featured in a Boston Globe article.
From a policy perspective, Knodler believes that the research done within the UMass Transportation Center would be incredibly useful as new policies and legislation are debated.
“I had testified on Beacon Hill when Massachusetts legislators contemplated an increase the driving age,” Knodler related. “Recent debates on primary seat belt laws, hands-free driving laws, and impaired driving laws would benefit from similar discussion and information resulting from our research. Perhaps the public engagement portfolio I envision includes better construction of white papers, a blog series, op-eds, or informational videos on selected topics.”
As a PEP Fellow, Knodler will meet twice per month during the 2019 spring semester, attending panels and skill-building workshops offered by faculty, communications experts from University Relations, and others experienced with public engagement. He will also receive peer mentoring tailored to his personal public engagement plan, as well as the opportunity to present his research to Massachusetts lawmakers.
This public engagement not only expands the impact of research on society, it also improves the quality of research. As the PEP program has described itself, “By developing a new generation of public intellectuals, the project enhances the public’s understanding, value, and use of research and promotes greater integration of research and its application.” (January 2019)