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April 12, 2022Episode 31. When a Crash Is No Accident: Staging roadside collisions to make them more survivable.
FEATURING: Lance Bullard
Sometimes vehicle crashes can’t be avoided, but it is possible to make them less life threatening. Senior Research Engineer Lance Bullard joins us to discuss how research has been making roadsides safer for travelers for as long as we’ve had roadsides.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Engineer
Lance Bullard heads TTI’s Roadside Safety and Physical Security Division. During his 35-year career, he has conducted research in design, analysis, testing and evaluation of highway safety appurtenances, including guardrails, bridge rails, median barriers, crash cushions, and breakaway signs. A recognized expert in roadside safety, Bullard has contributed to the conduct and/or analysis of more than 1,000 full-scale vehicular crash tests and holds 30 U.S. patents. He also serves as the Engineer of Record for the Texas Workforce Commission for testing and evaluating adaptive vehicle equipment and modifications for people with disabilities.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Welcome. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:29):
Much of the work in roadside safety is all about preventing crashes from happening. But there’s another essential component, too — one that’s focused on making crashes more survivable when they do happen, creating roadsides that are more forgiving for drivers who, despite their best efforts, may go off course. Lance Bullard, a senior research engineer, leads a team dedicated to that purpose as the head of the roadside safety and physical security division at TTI. We are grateful to have him here with us today. Welcome, Lance.
Lance Bullard (guest) (01:06):
Bernie Fette (01:07):
Some of the people listening, but probably not all of them, might know that what we now refer to as the RELLIS campus actually started out as the Bryan Army Airfield during World War II for training military pilots. But at some point it became a research facility and the researchers who came before you started crashing cars and trucks out there. Can you give us just a little history lesson on how the testing facility came to be?
Lance Bullard (01:36):
The, uh, airfield was constructed during World War II in 1942, and it was known as the Bryan Army Airfield. It was activated in 1943 for the U.S. Army Air Forces. It was a flight instructor school and assigned the task of developing a standardized system of instrument flight training. The base became known as the Bryan Air Force Base in 1947, when the U.S. Air Force was established. It was assigned the air training command and it conducted advanced flight training of the T-33 Shooting Star jet. Another little interesting quip about our history is Buzz Aldrin and Virgil Grissom, who later became NASA astronauts, were instructors out at the airfield.
Bernie Fette (02:21):
Gives you a bit of a tough act to follow, huh?
Lance Bullard (02:24):
It does. So TTI began using the facility in about 1963 and using it as a proving ground, performing vehicle dynamics and crash testing, which then was named the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College Research Annex. So when I came on and started working out here, this facility was known as The Annex. Later, it would become, uh, the Riverside Campus in 1988 when Texas A&M took full ownership of the facility.
Bernie Fette (02:55):
And you mentioned that TTI, uh, became active in the research work out there. I think in, you said in 1963?
Lance Bullard (03:03):
Bernie Fette (03:04):
So that roughly coincides with the early days of the Interstate Highway System. Is there any connection there?
Lance Bullard (03:11):
There is. There’s quite a history there with the Interstate Highway System. Now I’ll start with the very beginning, cuz I’m quite a history buff with regard to transportation history and the history of automobiles. So the very first Federal Highway Act was passed in 1916 and that provided federal subsidies to road building efforts. And coincidentally, people may or may not know, the Model-T started production in 1908. And at that particular time, there were about 253 auto manufacturers at the turn of the century in the United States. So automobiles were really starting to take off and we didn’t have the infrastructure. We still had roads that were primarily wagon trails that were muddy and bridges that were inadequate. And we had this enormous number of vehicles taking to the roads that didn’t exist.
Bernie Fette (04:05):
And competing for space with horse carriages too, I would imagine.
Lance Bullard (04:08):
Yes, sir. Absolutely. These roads were deplorable. They were, uh, muddy as I mentioned. So one of the things that occurred and it involved, you asked the question about the, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, and that was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1919. He was a young man and he was assigned to a convoy that was to take a transcontinental trip across the United States on the Lincoln Highway from Washington DC to San Francisco. And in that convoy, and it was a military convoy, it took them two months to make that trip on the Lincoln Highway. And they traveled an average speed of five miles per hour.
Bernie Fette (04:53):
Lance Bullard (04:54):
So it was just bad. And this left quite an impression on Dwight Eisenhower as a young man. Well, we fast forward to President Eisenhower taking office in 1953. And at that time the states had only completed 6,500 miles of this 40,000 mile Interstate Highway and these, uh, improvements. And Eisenhower remembering his time in that 1919 convoy across the U.S. and how long it took and how bad it was, this had become a personal mission of his to create this good system of roadways. So he addressed it in just about all of his State of the Union addresses that this was going to happen. And he was a career military man. And he had served in World War II and he realized the importance of moving people and goods in his time in Germany and, and seeing the Autobahn and how the Germans had used the Autobahn to move people and goods in military advancement and military equipment across their country. He said, you know, this is just something that we have to do. We have to make it happen. So he passed the 1956 Federal Highway Act and that as it was passed, it also expanded those interstate roads or the plan for those interstate roads to 41,000 miles.
Bernie Fette (06:13):
And when you describe the contrast between 1919 versus the vision for the Interstate Highway System, achieving that required a lot of new thinking. And so consequently, keeping those brand new visionary interstate highways safe, required a lot of new thinking too, which is kind of where some of the testing comes into the picture here, right?
Lance Bullard (06:38):
Absolutely. You know, they were establishing this brand new Interstate Highway System, uh, fantastic roadways where people could travel coast to coast and have the same expectancy of the roadway. The lanes were the same width. The markings were the same. The signage was the same. And it permitted people to run at higher speeds than they’d ever run at. And coincidentally, as this was occurring, the engineering and science of passenger cars was improving also. So cars, they had developed overhead valve engines, high performance engines, people were traveling very fast speeds. And consequently, what was happening was we were starting to have these horrific accidents. You know, high-speed accidents. And so we had great roadways, but people have not paid attention to the safety. So we have three kind of things that have to go together, the driver, the roadway and the vehicle. And they started saying, hey, we’ve kind of neglected safety in all of this.
Bernie Fette (07:37):
Yeah. You were describing how they were driving coast to coast. But one thing that they weren’t doing is slowing down for traffic lights along the way. So they were getting up to some pretty high speeds.
Lance Bullard (07:46):
Yeah. And some of these long straightaways, people, they didn’t have to pay attention so much to the driving task. They were getting distracted, they were falling asleep, they were running off the road. And things were beginning to happen. So we had to turn our attention to vehicle safety, driver safety, the roadway, the safety of the roadway in terms of friction and hydroplaning and the roadside. You know, when people run off the roadside, they said, okay, we know it happens. We can’t place all the responsibility on the driver. When that occurs, people run off the roadside. We have to do something to try to provide a forgiving and a protective environment for these drivers.
Bernie Fette (08:27):
And try to make those crashes as survivable as you can.
Lance Bullard (08:30):
Absolutely. We wanted to provide an environment where we could reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries when they left the roadway.
Bernie Fette (08:41):
And that required your predecessors to start doing crash testing. Can you tell us a little about what exactly goes into doing a crash test? About the planning, the precision, the weather, the waiting game. For something that culminates in less than half of a minute, there’s certainly a lot that comes before, right?
Lance Bullard (09:01):
Absolutely. And it depends on at what stage we’re starting. We do crash testing for private industry and we also do developmental testing where we’re developing new products and that may be for state DOTs or the federal government, or even for private entities for that matter. So we perform compliance crash testing, where somebody just brings us a device and we perform a series of high-speed or low-speed or combination of both crash tests with different speeds, impact angles, and weights of vehicles. And to give you a little background on the vehicles, right now, the current standard is we’re looking at two vehicle weights, so 1,100 kilograms and 2,270 kilograms. So about a 2,400-pound passenger car and about a 5,000-pound pickup truck. And we’re running those typically at highways speeds of about 62 miles per hour or a hundred kilometers per hour and angles up to 25 degrees. And we’re, we’re doing that in a bracket type of situation. We assume that if you test a lower-weight vehicle and a higher-weight vehicle then that population of vehicles that fall in between those two are going to be okay. We select the speed and the angle. And we believe that we’re encapsulating in terms of severity, basically 93 percent of the run-off-the-road accidents.
Bernie Fette (10:28):
What would you list as the major milestones in roadside safety that have resulted from the research that you and your colleagues have done?
Lance Bullard (10:37):
Oh, there’s so many. Things as benign as small sign supports like a stop sign. Engineers are very good at building things that are very strong structurally. And these run-off-the-road crashes, people were impacting, you know, just simple sign supports, and they were not yielding or forgiving. And it was causing terrible accidents and, and rollovers. And so that was one of the first things that they started looking at was we had all these sign supports along this new Interstate Highway System that were causing terrible impacts when people left the roadway. So breakaway sign supports was one of the first things TTI worked on. And basically what happens there is, engineers now have a design window where they have to design the support strong enough to hold up and sustain the wind loads against the sign panel itself, but weak enough to yield to a car that impacts.
Lance Bullard (11:30):
The next one that was really neat, was crash cushions. We had these Interstate Highway Systems with exit ramps and they had nice concrete barriers and where these concrete barriers merge, uh, between the main lanes and the exits, they had gore areas. So they had concrete walls right there. And people were, you know, being indecisive or inattentive or whatever the reason, uh, maybe they were running into ’em because somebody was changing lanes and not paying attention. So they were running into these, uh, concrete walls and crash cushions were developed and placed in front of those abutment areas. And TTI was on the cutting edge of developing some of the very first crash cushions ever developed. So those crash cushions were developed with Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT, and those early crash cushions, TxDOT had all of these paint striping drums. So paint came in these 55-gallon drums and they were just trash. What did they do with ’em? And they were looking for a way to develop a crash cushion and TTI researchers organized these drums in an array in front of these gore areas and developed a crash cushion that would safely decelerate an impacting vehicle and prevent fatalities and serious injuries.
Bernie Fette (12:49):
And it sounds like it also had the distinction of being one of the earlier applications of recycling.
Lance Bullard (12:55):
It was very much, very much so. Yeah. So yeah, this was in the sixties when this was all occurring. The sixties and seventies was very much an era of safety. The federal motor vehicle safety standards came out of the Federal Highway Safety Act of 1966. So we were going hand in hand as they were developing safety features and vehicles. And we were developing safety features for the roadside.
Bernie Fette (13:21):
And you also did a lot of work with guardrails. And I think that the idea then with the guardrail work specifically was to develop something that a car could crash into and that the driver could literally walk away from the crash, and that’s actually happened, hasn’t it?
Lance Bullard (13:38):
It has. So going back with safety philosophy, uh, when a vehicle leaves the roadway, there’s several things that can happen. Of course, the first thing we’d like to do is just remove the hazard from the roadway environment or roadside. The next thing is to, if we can’t remove it, relocate it. If we can’t do that, then we want to try to make it break away or yielding. Like we talked about on the sign supports, you know, allow that support of that hazard, just get outta the way when it’s impacted easily. And then finally the last resort is to shield it. And the reason I say last resort is when we install a barrier or guardrail on the roadside, that in and of itself is a hazard. And we wanna make sure that that hazard that’s being installed is certainly less severe than what it is we’re protecting.
Lance Bullard (14:25):
So the development of guardrails has come a long way and we’ve worked on that. And the theory behind that is when a vehicle leaves the roadway, that rail is hopefully there to contain and redirect that vehicle and keep it away from that hazard that it is shielding. So, uh, a lot of work went into developing safe guardrails. And one of the things is every guardrail is terminated on each end and we have to shield those ends because what they found out is when they just stuck a guardrail out there, people were impacting the end of the guardrail and those guardrails were piercing or penetrating the occupant compartment of the vehicle and causing injuries. So that led to the development of terminals or crash cushions. And TTI has a, a rich history in that, out here in front of our facility, we had an incident where a gentleman impacted one and it brought his pickup truck to a safe stop. He was able to get out and walk away from that. And, uh, he’s certainly been one of our biggest advocates of that safety device since then.
Bernie Fette (15:29):
So you were actually able to speak with somebody who benefited from some of the design and creative work that you and your colleagues have done.
Lance Bullard (15:39):
Bernie Fette (15:40):
So how did that feel to talk to somebody that survived a crash because of the work that you and your colleagues did?
Lance Bullard (15:47):
You know, it’s very fulfilling to know that it’s more than just a research report getting dusty on a shelf when you meet an end user. And nobody wants to set out to leave and go to work and try out one of our devices. But it’s, it’s very fulfilling to know that we’ve been successful in saving somebody’s life and allowing them to return home to their family.
Bernie Fette (16:09):
Sounds like a classic example of you guys creating something that you hope that no one will ever have to use.
Lance Bullard (16:16):
Bernie Fette (16:18):
And then at some point specifically after the terrorist attacks in 2001, your portfolio expanded. Did you just answer the phone one day and someone said, hello, I’m calling from the U.S. Department of State and we need your help? Is that how it worked, or <laugh> tell, tell, tell us how that got started.
Lance Bullard (16:37):
Not quite, but that’s pretty close. You know, after 9-11, we just had a different audience. We went from saving the good guys and, and keeping them on the road or when they left the roadway to, uh, saving the good guys within a protected perimeter. So there are a lot of facilities where they’re trying to keep bad guys out, nuclear power plants, government facilities, airports, there’s all kinds of things where they want to keep bad guys or terrorists from getting into.
Bernie Fette (17:07):
Including embassies, right? Isn’t that what, embassies the focus of some of your work too?
Lance Bullard (17:12):
We did a lot of work with the embassies. We already had a rich history in designing and developing ways to decelerate vehicles. The difference when we, we switched to these devices. So gates, bollards, fences, rigid things that, uh, we were not so concerned with saving the occupant of the vehicle, cuz we’re talking about bad guys here. We were interested in saving the people on the other side of the device.
Bernie Fette (17:37):
And, and so you literally had to, uh, design crash tests to simulate a truck, trying to get inside a secured area, an embassy or other secured area with a whole lot of explosives. You literally had to simulate that circumstance.
Lance Bullard (17:56):
Yes, sir. And, and we not only simulated it in a computational environment like we were accustomed to doing in the highway environment, but we ran full-scale crash tests as well. So trucks up to 80,000 pounds. So trucks, semi tractor trailers.
Bernie Fette (18:11):
With several of those barrels, like the ones you mentioned earlier, loaded onto the back of the truck to simulate explosives.
Lance Bullard (18:19):
Uh, it was laden with a simulated, they’re homemade bombs basically. And, uh, everything we could do to replicate that particular environment that was provided.
Bernie Fette (18:30):
Probably one of the most often viewed videos on your website, too.
Lance Bullard (18:35):
Probably. So because people like to see a, a bad crash when they come watch one. Unfortunately on the highway side of things, an entertaining crash test that looks bad is not good, but on the, uh, embassy protection side of things, it’s spectacular.
Bernie Fette (18:51):
Yeah. Yeah. Crash testing, as dramatic and fascinating as it is, is not the only thing that you do at the proving ground. What else is going on out there?
Lance Bullard (19:01):
Well, there’s a lot of facets to leading up to an actual crash test. We do crash testing with regard to low-speed bollards. So protecting farmers’ markets, uh, sidewalk cafes.
Bernie Fette (19:12):
Lance Bullard (19:13):
Convenience stores, these smash-and-grab type of events. We’re getting into material handling testing. So providing protective devices for these distribution centers, they have a forklift run in to a, a pallet rack that goes to the ceiling and comes crashing down on somebody. Uh, we’re getting into that. But we were talking about the crash test itself, the design aspect, you know, actually sitting down and designing it, doing it in a computational environment. We have a scanning facility where we’re reverse engineering and scanning vehicles to use as models in those simulations. We have a lot of component testing that we perform using a falling-weight pendulum. We have bogie vehicles to try to reduce the cost of developmental testing. These vehicles have varying crush characteristics depending on what we’re trying to accomplish. So we have lots of tools at our disposal before we get actually out in the field and perform a full-scale crash test.
Bernie Fette (20:12):
A 50-year or 50-plus-year record is pretty impressive. But I’m wondering how you look at the next several years. If you could get a really big measure of research funding tomorrow to explore or test one thing that you haven’t done yet, what would you do?
Lance Bullard (20:31):
You know right now the, uh, I think the emphasis for everybody is on EV — electric vehicles and automated, uh, you know, driverless vehicles. And those vehicles have a lot of different characteristics than our current passenger car fleet. We are always changing and updating our crash testing standards to reflect the more recent passenger car fleet on the roadway. And right now that’s the movement. We’re going to these EV vehicles. And we’re gonna have to update our standards and look at what happens when these vehicles with lithium batteries impact guardrails, because they do have different stiffness characteristics. So when they crash, they’re going to crunch up in layman’s terms. They’re gonna crunch up differently than current passenger cars. You know, is there a fire hazard with the lithium batteries? I know that’s a big topic right now is how do emergency response crews handle these vehicles in crash scenarios? So there’s a lot of research and work to be performed there, uh, with the new vehicle fleet that’s coming.
Bernie Fette (21:39):
So you’re having to do exactly what your predecessors did back in the sixties — adapt to the new transportation world that we were developing and building and build safety standards to accommodate.
Lance Bullard (21:52):
Absolutely. And it’s still just being able to see these devices. When I say see these new automated vehicles, how they’re seeing the devices on the side of the road and interacting with the vehicles. You know, what do we do to communicate with them? And is there going to be in the future, when you impact one of these devices because accidents happen, whether it’s human error or the software or, uh, hardware errors. I’d like to think that we’re going to get down to zero fatalities and we’re not going to have crashes anymore, but in the interim, are these devices going to contact the emergency response crews and say, hey, there’s been an accident. I’ve been run into, and this is my location. Please come help the driver and the passengers.
Bernie Fette (22:39):
Watching a crash test in person is a unique experience, for sure. It’s dramatic. It’s powerful. And it’s really loud. And even though you see the impact coming, it’s hard to not flinch a little bit when it happens. You’ve been crashing cars and trucks and motorcycles for quite a few years. Does it ever feel like, oh, it’s just another day at the office?
Lance Bullard (23:06):
No, it’s always exciting. It’s amazing to have a long career like I’ve had and every day be excited to get up and, and do it again. One of the things that I think when you actually come and watch a crash test, that people don’t realize when we’re going down the highway, we’re in this little box and we feel safe and sound and driving high speed doesn’t feel bad. But when you’re standing there watching a vehicle come down the test track — and you’ve done that, Bernie — doesn’t it seem like, wow, that vehicle’s really going fast? But when you’re driving home, you just don’t get that same sensation. And I think everybody needs to see how fast you’re really going to appreciate, man, if something goes wrong or I have to stop, or, you know, I lose control, there’s a lot of energy involved and I’m not wrapped in much. There’s, you know, it’s just then sheet metal protecting us. Particularly for young drivers, they take for granted their safety. They’ve never been uncomfortable before. And seeing that, it drives home that, wow, this is bad. It could be bad because a crash is a crash. It always looks bad. It always looks violent. Even though we save somebody’s life, at the end of the day, the potential for injuries is there. And we hope to mitigate those injuries. And we hope that people can get outta the car, but it’s still a crash. It’s still a life-threatening event.
Bernie Fette (24:28):
Yeah. You mentioned getting up every day. So that makes me wonder, what is it that still motivates you after all these years to come to work every day?
Lance Bullard (24:37):
I think the bottom line is just the ability to potentially save lives. You know, uh, I get to take my education and my experience and do something that hopefully will do good and save somebody’s life and allow them to go home at the end of the day and be with their family.
Bernie Fette (24:57):
Lance Bullard, senior research engineer at TTI. You and your team have some pretty fascinating jobs, Lance. Thanks for telling us about the work that you do.
Lance Bullard (25:07):
Thanks for letting me share it with you.
Bernie Fette (25:11):
Despite myriad transportation safety improvements in the past century, vehicle crashes remain one of the leading causes of death worldwide. As Lance Bullard tells us, we all hope to one day reach a point where we have zero deaths on our roadways. But until that day, we need ways to make crashes more survivable. That requires constant effort in developing new safety technologies, whether those innovations are inside the car or outside of it. Thanks for listening. Please join us for our next episode and a conversation with Darlene Goehl an expert in pavement engineering at TTI. What Darlene has to share is likely to inspire greater appreciation for the humble roadways that many of us take for granted each day. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.