Noreen McDonald

The Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety (CSCRS) is an integrated national safety center focused on the goal of reducing injuries and saving lives on our roadway system.  CSCRS is taking a new look at the safe systems approach to safety. It’s mission is to create and exchange knowledge to advance transportation safety through a multidisciplinary, safe systems approach. By engaging perspectives from behavioral, engineering, epidemiological, technological, and planning disciplines, CSCRS is implementing new research, education, and professional development activities designed to improve safety on U.S. roadways.

Collaborator Profile: Noreen McDonald

Featured in this issue of the CSCRS newsletter is Associate Director Dr. Noreen McDonald. McDonald is the chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of City and Regional Planning, director of the Carolina Transportation Program, and associate director, Southeastern Transportation Research, Innovation, Development and Education Center. She recently published the article “Trends in Automobile Travel, Motor Vehicle Fatalities, and Physical Activity: 2003 – 2015” in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. McDonald is the principal investigator of the current CSCRS research project “Advanced Analytics for Vulnerable Road User Scenarios.”


Crossroads:  How did you get involved in road safety research?

McDonald:  I’ve studied walking and cycling for many years. We have found that safety is a critical issue for explaining whether individuals decide to use active modes. Because of this link, I’ve become interested in road safety more broadly.

Crossroads:  Why do you believe it is important to create a new approach to researching road safety?

McDonald:  While it is common sense that the design of communities affects road safety, there has been little information provided to practicing planners about how decisions about street standards, driveway permits, and site review affect road safety. We have a unique opportunity with CSCRS to clarify how planning decisions impact road safety.

Crossroads:  What does a systems approach to road safety mean to you?

McDonald:  Systems approaches have become more popular across disciplines. In road safety, it makes us think about designing a system that is safe even when users make mistakes. But a systems approach also refers to how we do research on road safety by bringing in multiple perspectives, particularly from planning and public health.

Crossroads:  What can your discipline bring to road safety research?

McDonald:  Most planners have only recently begun to think of themselves as important players in road safety conversations. Planners set development rules and thereby shape the safety of the road network. On the research side, we need to make clear the links between roadway standards for width, sidewalks and trees, and how safe the resulting road system is for all users.

Crossroads:  How have you integrated perspectives from other fields into your own work?

McDonald:  Integrating public health perspectives on understanding how to influence and change behavior has been important in my work. I’ve been interested in how transport infrastructure, particularly sidewalks and bike lanes, change how we travel. Public health provides frameworks for disentangling the impacts of individual factors (like age and cycling ability) and policy factors (for example, are there sidewalks, and how is infrastructure maintained?).

Crossroads:  What ideas do you have for practical applications of road safety research?

McDonald:  We’re updating our courses to make sure all planning students learn about road safety and a systems approach. This is an essential step to changing how things are done and making a difference.

Crossroads:  Where would you like to see the field of transportation safety in five years?

McDonald:  I think the big conversation will be around how autonomous vehicles can be integrated into our communities. This will require rethinking how we pay for roads and transport infrastructure and new conversations about safety.

Crossroads:  What’s the most rewarding thing that’s happened during your research career?

McDonald:  A programmer in Spain read a paper of mine on school travel and developed an app that can be used to make sure kids arrive safely at school. I had a chance to meet him when I gave a talk at the University of Granada and was excited to learn about the existence of the app.

Crossroads:  What advice would you give to up-and-coming researchers in your field?

McDonald: The most important thing is to talk to people from outside your field. You will find shared interests and new ways of solving problems.

Read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about the CSCRS

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