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Cycling for Safety: Olympians Visit Virginia Tech

Cyclists from the Team Twenty24 Cycling Training program visited the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Virginia Smart Roads — a state-of-the-art, closed test-bed, research facility managed by the institute — to discuss bicycle safety and future collaborations.

“Cyclist fatalities have been on the rise for the past decade,” said Zac Doerzaph, executive director of Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI). “Considering that cycling is one of the ways that we can improve sustainability and protect the environment, researching cyclists and cyclist safety is something that is of real interest to us.”

While visiting the institute, the cyclists went for a bike ride around the Virginia Smart Roads, experiencing firsthand the capabilities available to researchers increasing cyclist safety. Their 3.4-mile route took them through Surface Street, onto the highway, and around the Rural Roadway with nearly 600 feet in elevation change.

In partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation, VTTI opened the original the highway section of the Virginia Smart Road in 2000. One of the world’s most advanced testing facilities for transportation technology and safety research, the Smart Road encompasses more than 30,000 hours and over 3 1/2 years of research since its opening. In November 2017, VTTI launched the suite of test tracks that enable advanced vehicle testing in an interconnected and comprehensive cross section of roadways, including highway, surface, rural, and the live roadway connector.

With more than 6 miles of paved roadbed, these research facilities feature weather-making, lighting variation capabilities, advanced sensors, traffic intersections, and varying pavement types, enabling the institute to conduct vehicle evaluations and driver safety testing for its partners in a secure location under diverse conditions. Collectively, the Virginia Smart Roads, which include a highly modular and reconfigurable surface street environment, are an ideal facility for advanced-vehicle testing and cycling.

In addition to providing a world-class testing facility for advanced vehicles, the Virginia Smart Roads are also ideal for vulnerable road user safety research.

With various reconfigurations available, including crosswalks, bus stops, mid-road crossings, and more, the Virginia Smart Roads are designed to solve challenges. In addition to the multitude of facilities, VTTI has a dedicated Vulnerable Road User Safety group. This group conducts applied research and outreach activities with the objective of enhancing safety and mobility for all vulnerable road users who may be at greater risk due to reduced independence or a disparity in equity. Their research looks at transportation challenges for older adults, pedestrians, bicyclists, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented demographics.

Safety tips for cyclists and drivers from VTTI researchers:

  • Avoid riding at night when possible.
  • Use bike lanes when possible.
  • If sharing the road with traffic, be as visible as possible – use lights and reflective gear, especially reflectors that show motion such as pedals or leg bands.
  • Maintain situation awareness and be cautious when around cars. They weigh a lot more and go a lot faster.
  • As drivers, give bicyclists space and share the road.

In addition to discussing bicyclist safety, the Olympians also spent time with experts from the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab housed within the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“What we do is highlight differences in helmets that are available so that someone can choose a helmet that is going to best reduce their likelihood of getting hurt,” said Steve Rowson, director of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab and associate professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics. “Not only are we informing consumers of what is good, we are also serving the role of providing design criteria to manufacturers to design better helmets.”

The Helmet Lab specializes in injury biomechanics, with particular emphasis on investigating human tolerance to impact loading. Rather than studying how to treat injury, researchers explore ways to prevent injury by identifying and characterizing injury mechanisms, quantifying the biomechanical response to impact, determining tolerance levels, and evaluating protective design. The team studies injuries to the whole body, but primarily focuses on advancing the understanding of concussion and how to decrease the incidence of injury. Applications of the lab’s research include sports, automobiles, and military injury prevention.

Studying concussions is challenging because it is impossible to produce human brain injury in a laboratory environment. In collaboration with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab rated 178 bike helmets using the STAR evaluation system. The impact tests evaluate a helmet’s ability to reduce linear acceleration and rotational velocity of the head resulting from a range of head impacts a cyclist might experience. Helmets with more stars provide a reduction in concussion risk for these impacts compared to helmets with less stars.

The Twenty24 cycling team, which is based in Roanoke and sponsored by Virginia’s Blue Ridge, connected to the university through the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center, which works to build connections and collaborations between the Roanoke community and the university. According to its website, the team features 14 Olympic/Paralympic medalists, 17 world champions, and numerous national champions hailing from the United States, Canada, Cuba, and Mexico.

“Having this world-class cycling team based in our region is a unique opportunity. The athletes are really interested in what resources might be available at Virginia Tech and the ways they may be able to help advance research through future collaborations,” said Scott Weimer, executive director of Roanoke Regional Initiatives.

To facilitate those discussions, the Roanoke Center held a meet-and-greet reception at The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center, providing an opportunity for university researchers to talk with team members.

Aurélien Borgoltz, assistant director of the Stability Wind Tunnel in the in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, and Barry Miller, director of outreach and business development for the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, were among faculty members who met with the team.

“The stability tunnel can provide them a controlled environment where their rider can get on the bike and see how changes in their body position, shape of their helmet, or the fabric of their clothing affect the force a rider needs to power through the air,” Borgoltz said. “While it’s not something we’ve done yet, we have all the tools to make this happen. We would be very excited to be able to work with the team.”

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