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UNL plays a key role

July 10, 2018

The idea of hitting a highway guard rail when driving or riding in a vehicle is not a pleasant concept. It’s easy to imagine the screeching sound that results, the sparks that might fly and then — to make matters worse — checking out the damage the collision caused.

But when thinking again about the situation, those same unnerving noises and costly dents and scratches are something one should be thankful for — because it means the guard rail did its job.

It prevented something potentially much worse from happening — going complete off a highway and into a ditch, a ravine or even a cliff. Damage to a car is nothing when compared to injuries suffered or the loss of lives.

That’s why we were pleased to read recently about how a University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering team is heavily involved in testing an improved highway safety device to ensure it meets new safety standards that the university experts helped write.

Engineers are deliberately crashing cars, pickups and tractor-trailers into guardrails and barriers found along highways nationwide at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility’s outdoor proving grounds at Lincoln Airport.

Bob Bielenberg, a researcher at the university’s facility, said the guardrail is designed to buckle under a vehicle’s force. But the snapped wooden beams and folding corrugated-steel rails bring a runaway vehicle to a relatively safe stop. “We want the system to break away, bend and deform to absorb all the impact energy,” added Jim Holloway, the test site’s director.

The Midwest Roadside Safety Facility bases its tests on reconstructions of actual crashes, Bielenberg said. The testing accounts for up to 95 percent of all highway guardrail impacts.

Engineers keep vehicles at speeds within a tight range near 62 mph and impacts at angles within 25 degrees of the vehicle’s nose, which covers most of what is seen on the side of the road.

The team made changes to the guardrail after a test failed in April when a lower-profile car slid underneath a pair of cables that reinforce the corrugated rails.

The university plans to communicate its research results to transportation departments across the region so that state officials can make more informed decisions about road safety.

Given how important guardrails and barriers are, it’s a source of pride that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is playing a key role in helping to see that they’re as effective as possible.

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