Ohio State traffic engineer joins traffic safety panel
Federal committee aims to create better traffic controls, discourage jaywalking
A traffic engineer at The Ohio State University has been invited to serve on an expert panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Balaji Ponnu, with Transportation and Traffic Management at Ohio State, joins a project of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) titled “Pedestrian Crosswalk Spacing and Placement Guidance to Improve Safety.”
Each year, the NCHRP focuses on a set of projects that are critical to state departments of transportation across the country. This year, one of the project’s main research objectives is to determine the maximum distance pedestrians will travel to use a crosswalk and develop various crosswalk spacing recommendations to discourage them from crossing at higher-risk locations between crosswalks.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities are about 19% of all traffic fatalities every year. In 2019, more than 6,000 pedestrians in the United States were killed due to traffic collisions, and over 80% of those accidents occurred at unmarked midblock locations, places where a traffic signal or a stop sign is nonexistent.
Ponnu, who received a doctorate in civil engineering from Ohio State in 2018, believes he was asked to participate because he serves as the traffic engineer for a large college campus in the country and due to his work investigating choice of countermeasures and pedestrian volume patterns of college crosswalks. His previous research has also helped to develop measures to discourage jaywalking on Ohio State’s Columbus campus. Earlier this year, Ponnu presented his findings on pedestrian crossing volume patterns at the 101st annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, which was held in Washington, D.C.
“College crosswalks are very different from public road crosswalks in that they’re very unique in terms of heavy pedestrian movements and a young student population,” he said. Uncontrolled crossing locations, or places where people often choose to jaywalk, can be dangerous, but Ponnu said that penalizing people isn’t conducive to improving traffic conditions.
“The onus to prevent pedestrians from jaywalking should not be on the pedestrian. It should be on those of us who design crosswalk systems,” he said.
Case in point: During trips around campus to study local crosswalk operations, Ponnu discovered a huge variation in traffic control for crosswalks with similar characteristics across different areas around the university. “There is no consistency in how we provide crosswalk traffic control, and that’s something we need to standardize,” he said. But this issue isn't confined to college campuses; Ponnu’s previous research has shown that there is a lack of consistency in the choice of crosswalk traffic control across the country because there is no clear national guidance.
According to the NCHRP, national crosswalk spacing guidance is ambiguous as well; most agency regulations only point to where marked crosswalks should not be installed, rather than give advice on where they should be.
But how do researchers fix such a failing on a national scale?
By turning research like Ponnu’s into well-defined objectives, the project, which has received $500,000 in funding for the 2023 fiscal year, aims to be a first step in changing the way pedestrians interact with roads. It’ll be a year or two before the panel is able to share its recommendations on how to improve our current roadway system with other federal agencies, but Ponnu said he’s looking forward to serving as a “champion” for the implementation of the project’s results at Ohio State.
“It is an absolute honor to have been invited to serve on this panel,” he said. “Being on this project will be a significant help in assisting me to design better facilities for both students and the many other people who travel to Ohio State’s campus.”