Roadside safety research began at the University of Nebraska (UNL) in 1974 when Dr. Edward R. Post left the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) of Texas A&M University and joined the Civil Engineering Faculty in Lincoln, Nebraska. For many years, this small research program continued to operate with a small number of graduate students, primarily supported by local government agencies, such as the Nebraska Department of Roads. In the mid- to late 1980s, the research program had continued to grow due to support from a few additional State highway agencies as well as from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). This additional funding allowed the program to support a greater number of graduate and undergraduate engineering students, which in turn slightly increased the capabilities of the research program. Two individuals who helped to create this research program, Dr. Ronald Faller and Mr. James Holloway, actually started working at UNL as civil engineering students but now continue as full-time roadside safety researchers and engineers. In these early years, the research program consisted mostly of the crash testing and evaluation of standard hardware designs used by particular State highway agencies.
In 1990, it became evident that for this research program to succeed and continue to exist into the future, it was critical for the program to maintain continuity and its staff beyond that provided by rotating students in and out every two to three years. It was also deemed necessary for the research group to obtain a greater identity, resulting in the research group giving itself the name, the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility (MwRSF). At this same time, three states in the Midwest, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, recognized the need for additional research to improve roadside safety and to reduce injuries and fatalities associated with ran-off-road crashes.
Later, the concept of a State Department of Transportation, annually-funded, research program was conceived. This program would partially support MwRSF's research program and allow it to continue to grow and excel with a more permanent staff. As a result, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln collaborated with the States of Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri to form the Midwest State's Regional Pooled Fund Program, a program dedicated for sponsoring roadside safety research. Shortly thereafter, the program was joined by the State of Iowa.
As the research program appeared to have broken new ground for financial commitment and support for the future, the MwRSF staff lost its original Director as Dr. Post passed away in the Spring of 1991. This resulted in a search for a new Director to lead the group into the future. In 1992, Dr. Dean Sicking left TTI to join the Civil Engineering Faculty in Lincoln and to become MwRSF's second permanent director.
Over the next several years, the research program took on a different focus and began to emerge as an international leader in the development of new roadside safety hardware. This growth was greatly aided by the continued commitment of the State Departments of Transportation that have continued to support MwRSF's research program. Today, in its 16th year, the Pooled Fund program now has thirteen member states, including Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Wyoming, California, and South Dakota. In the early- to mid-1990s, MwRSF's growth was further aided by the additions of Drs. John Rohde and John Reid, experts in geotechnical engineering and non-linear crash analysis, respectively. Later, the full-time engineering staff continued to growth with the additions of Mr. Robert Bielenberg, Ms. Karla Polivka, Dr. Brian Coon, and Mr. Curt Meyer.
Largely due to the support from the Midwest States' Regional Pooled Fund Program, the MwRSF has come to be recognized as a global leader in the development of crashworthy safety structures. The Midwest Roadside Safety Facility has developed numerous safety features that have been adopted nationwide, and several that have been adopted internationally. These new safety features have saved the lives of countless motorists across the nation over the last decade. Roadside safety features developed and tested at MwRSF have included: the SKT, FLEAT, BEST, and BEAT guardrail terminals; the BEAT-SSCC crash cushion; numerous variations of strong-post W-beam guardrail systems; several approach guardrail transition systems; thirteen bridge railings for timber deck bridges; the Nebraska TL-5 aesthetic open concrete bridge rail; the Minnesota thrie beam bullnose median terminal; numerous work-zone devices; and the Midwest Guardrail System. Further, the MwRSF has become recognized as a leader in computer simulation modeling of roadside safety features through FHWA's Center of Excellence.
MwRSF's success in the development of innovative safety features has attracted funding from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), a division of the National Academy of Science. Under this program, the MwRSF is currently developing guidelines for the safety performance evaluation of roadside features, warrants for the use of roadside safety structures, and a long term accident investigation study to better understand the causes of injuries and fatalities in ran-off-road crashes.
In 1998, MwRSF also began to break new ground in working with the motorsports industry to improve the safety for race car drivers participating in high-speed racing events. More specifically, MwRSF was selected by the Indy Racing League (IRL), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), and NASCAR to develop, test, and evaluate safety features for high-speed race tracks. With the support of IRL, IMS, and NASCAR, MwRSF developed the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier for use on high-speed oval race tracks. This system has been installed at several NASCAR and IRL race tracks, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. NASCAR recently announced that the SAFER Barrier will be installed at all of its high-speed oval tracks by the 2005 racing season. The SAFER Barrier has absorbed more than 50 significant impacts thus far, with outstanding safety performance. Even though some of impacts with the barrier have been extremely severe, no significant driver injuries have occurred. Phil Casey, Senior Technical Director, of the Indy Racing League has stated that SAFER Barrier is "the greatest achievement for safety in automobile racing that's been made." The effectiveness of the SAFER Barrier has also generated the following driver comments after high-speed impacts.
Mario Andretti: "When Kenny hit it, he waited for a big ouch, and it was a non-event." "I mean, it was unbelievable if you could see the angle that he hit. He walked away. If there was just concrete there, it would not have been good." "That SAFER wall is really, really working."
Jimmy Spencer: "I never even got dazed," Spencer said. "It was a hard hit, too. The worst side you can hit with is the left side. I didn't even get anything. It never even knocked the wind out of me. There's no question that the (SAFER barriers) are working."
Michael Waltrip: "I can't emphasize how important it is for that SAFER wall to be up there. Experience taught me I was fixing to get hurt, but I went up there and hit that nice, cushiony wall and I didn't get hurt."
Alex Barron: "If not for the SAFER barrier, all three drivers who crashed during qualifying at Indy this year wouldn't have gotten back in their cars the next day. Drivers are now better protected and feel more confident that they'll be able to walk away from accidents."
In summary, over the relatively short period since the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility was created, it has garnered over $14 million in external research funding and has come to be recognized as a global leader in roadside safety research. Its safety products have been adopted widely and benefit everyone from motorists to race car drivers. As a result, the MwRSF is uniquely positioned to lead the transportation community to significant advancements in roadside safety technology.