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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Research Exchange

About Research Exchange

  • Research Exchange gathers brief summaries of ongoing or recently completed research about critical topics in transportation. We invite readers to suggest studies that merit inclusion.

People Find a Smile Attractive in Cars, Too

Participants reacted more positively to images of a car with its grill shaped like a smile than one shaped more like a frown in a study of the marketing of products through anthropomorphizing, people’s tendency to see human features in nonhuman forms. The study noted the tendency is quite common — for example, people see faces in clouds, scold malfunctioning machines and attribute human thoughts and emotions to animals. Marketers often encourage consumers to anthropomorphize their brands, the researchers noted, citing transportation-specific examples like the Michelin Man or a recent TV ad that showed a Cadillac “crashing” and enlivening a dull party of other luxury cars.

A group of college students who participated in the study for partial course credit were told they would be shown a car that had recently been redesigned and asked to evaluate its look. They were shown photos of Lexuses and Thunderbirds. Some had their grills digitally manipulated to appear turned up like a smile, while others were unaltered, with the grill shaped more like a frown. The different car makes were used to ensure that brand preferences did not influence the participants’ reactions.

The images were accompanied by dialogues meant to prime object and human “schemas,” a psychological term the study summarized as “a stored framework of cognitive knowledge that represents information about a topic, concept or particular stimulus including its attributes and the relations among the attributes.” For the human schema prime, the car was presented as its own spokesperson with a dialogue that began, “Hi! I am Lexus.” For the object schema prime, the car was shown with dialogue that began, “You will now see a picture of a Lexus.”

Participants who were presented the spokesperson dialogue were more likely to see the car as a person and evaluate it more positively when the car’s grill was more congruent (smiling) than less congruent (frowning) with this human schema, according to the study. However, when the object schema prime was presented, participants were no more likely to view the car as a person whether the grill shape was smiling or frowning.

Similar tests were conducted to measure the participants’ perceptions of beverage bottles. The study (“Is That Car Smiling at Me? Schema Congruity as a Basis for Evaluating Anthropomorphized Products”) was published in December’s Journal of Consumer Research.

—Researchers: Pankaj Aggarwal, University of Toronto; Ann L. McGill, University of Chicago.

No Pet Left Behind, No Owner Left Behind

Dog is man’s best friend, and a pair of researchers feel that bond could save a man’s life during a hurricane. A recent study suggests that an effective way to motivate stubborn holdouts to evacuate their homes during a natural disaster may be to leverage the protective feelings they hold for their pets.

FEMA-Michael Riger

Refugees and a pet are evacuated following

Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A year after Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush approved the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS), federal legislation that provides disaster assistance funds to states contingent on their plans to accommodate the needs of people with service animals and household pets. A pair of researchers evaluating the PETS Act suggest that marketing strategies geared toward saving animals’ lives could result in saving people’s as a by-product.

“Research suggests that people are more likely to engage in helping behavior that benefits animals than they are to protect themselves,” the authors wrote. In addition, residents with pets but no children have been found to be the least likely to comply with evacuation orders. Homeowners may be reluctant to comply because of fears their pets would not be accommodated.

By developing marketing programs geared toward building awareness of animal disaster preparedness, owners could be motivated to learn about what protective measures they can take, according to the authors. If they have an evacuation plan in place that includes their pets, they would be more likely to leave the dangers behind.

The research appeared in “No Pet Left Behind: Accommodating Pets in Emergency Planning,” published in last spring’s Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.

—Researchers: Hillary A. Leonard, University of Rhode Island; Debra L. Scammon, University of Utah.

Country Roads Take Me Home, But Not Less Angry

Supporting conventional wisdom about drivers, a study found that men tended to exhibit risky driving behavior more often than women, while urban males reported less overall driving anger than their rural counterparts.

A hundred psychology and sociology students (50 men, 50 women) completed surveys for extra credit. Some were community college students at a school with a main campus in a city of over 180,000, while others attended a branch campus 30 miles away in a town of less than 16,000. The participants were asked to grade the level of anger they experienced in certain scenarios (such as drivers weaving in and out of lanes) and answer questions that quantified the ways they expressed their anger. Other questions focused on how often participants engaged in aggressive driving behaviors (cutting off vehicles, yelling at other drivers) and risky behavior (speeding, driving drunk, blowing stop signs/red lights).

Overall, the research indicated there was little difference between urban and rural drivers, with one notable exception. Male students attending the urban campus reported significantly less overall driving anger than the three other groups, which did not differ. The report noted that this was not a result that was hypothesized, since urban areas contain more of the typical triggers of road stress (congestion, erratic driving, etc.). However, the author cautioned against interpreting the results as meaningful until future studies replicate them. As far as gender differences, the men reported more aggressive and risky driving behavior than women.

The full study, “Anger, Aggression, and Risky Behavior on the Road: A Preliminary Study of Urban and Rural Differences,” appeared January in The Journal of Applied Psychology.

—Researchers: Jerry L. Deffenbacher, Colorado State University.

Human Brains React to Diesel Fume Exposure

European researchers recorded functional changes in the brain activities of subjects exposed for over a half hour to diesel fumes. The authors claim their study is the first to show such a stress reaction, but they were cautious to speculate on what the ramifications of long-term exposure to diesel fumes might be.

Ten volunteers were placed in a room and exposed for one hour to exhaust produced by a Volvo engine and another hour to ordinary filtered air. The experiments were held two to four days apart. The subjects were all males free of neurological impairments, ranging in age from 18 to 39. Electroencephalography (EEG) readings were taken using eight electrodes placed on the subjects’ scalps. The men sat upright in silence and performed no exercise during the testing periods.

From about 30 minutes on, an increase in median power frequency (MPF) was recorded by the electrodes corresponding with the frontal cortex sections of the brain in the subjects exposed to diesel exhaust. No such changes were observed in the subjects seated in the filtered air chamber. Lead researcher Paul Borm, of Zuyd University in the Netherlands, said in a press release that the team believes the reaction was caused by nanoparticles, or soot particles, that are a major component of diesel exhaust.

“These may penetrate to the brain and affect brain function,” Borm said. “We can only speculate what these effects may mean for the chronic exposure to air pollution encountered in busy cities where the levels of such soot particles can be very high.”

Although some news headlines announced the study showed diesel fumes caused “brain damage,” Borm said further research was necessary before drawing definite conclusions.

“It is conceivable that the long-term effects of exposure to traffic nanoparticles may interfere with normal brain function and information processing,” Borm said in a press release. “Further studies are necessary to explore this effect, and to assess the relationship between the amount of exposure to particles and the brain’s response and investigate the clinical implications of these novel findings.”

But such research is not easy to conduct. Experiments that expose volunteers to potential toxins or require invasive techniques are limited for ethical reasons, according to the study, which appeared in Particle and Fibre Toxicology in March.

—Researchers: Bjorn Cruts, Ludo van Etten and Paul J.A. Borm, Zuyd University, Netherlands; Hakan Tornqvist, Anders Blomberg and Thomas Sandstrom, University of Umea, Sweden; Nicholas L. Mills, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

Drunkenness is Skin Deep

Two devices that measure intoxication at the skin surface produced erratic results, but could become more effective as the technology improves, according to a study sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Because drunk driving offenders violate their license suspensions so often, some courts have begun to look at the effectiveness of punishments that control drinking rather than driving, according to the study.


The Alcohol Monitoring Systems, Inc.

(AMS) Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol

Monitor (SCRAM).

A pair of enforcement tools believed to hold potential are the Alcohol Monitoring Systems, Inc. (AMS) Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor (SCRAM) and the Giner, Inc. Wrist Transdermal Alcohol Sensor (WrisTAS). Researchers tested their accuracy over a total of 271 drinking episodes—60 which took place under lab supervision and 211 which were self-dosed. The devices were worn 24 hours per day by 22 subjects (15 males, seven females) for a period of 96 total weeks, or just over four weeks per person. Participants provided daily drinking and eating logs and were given a handheld breath test device that allowed them to record blood alcohol contents on their own.

According to test results, both devices had problems with false negatives, but neither seemed to struggle with false positives. Moisture accumulations inside the devices, unreadable data, faulty chipsets and malfunctions were listed among the problems that affected the readings’ accuracy. In the case of the SCRAM, accuracy tended to decline as the days wore on.

Although the devices performed more poorly than expected, the authors compared the technology to the early days of alcohol ignition interlock devices, noting it is reasonable to expect that they will improve with time. Since the research was conducted, both companies released updated versions of the devices, but the researchers said they did not test those versions. The study (“Evaluating Transdermal Alcohol Measuring Devices”) is available on the NHTSA’s homepage,

—Researchers: Paul R. Marques and A. Scott McKnight, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Calverton, Md.

Emergency Ride Home Programs are Cheap, Effective

Guaranteed ride home (GRH) programs are affordable, sparingly used and effective in discouraging employees from driving to work alone, according to Federal Transit Administration research. GRH, also known as “emergency ride home” programs, are meant to reassure commuters that they have a way to leave work in the event of a personal or family emergency. Typically, the employer has agreements with taxi services or rental car companies to provide the service.

The study cited a number of surveys that have shown GRH programs provide a strong incentive for commuters to use public transportation. In a 2002 survey of Haverstraw-Ossining Ferry riders in New York, 41 percent of respondents said GRH was among the top reasons for taking the ferry instead of their previous mode. In a 1999 survey of Tappan Zee express bus riders in New York, 16 percent claimed they would definitely stop using the service without GRH.

A total of 55 GRH programs sponsored by some of the largest transit agencies in the country were examined for the study. It found that the average annual cost per registered commuter was $1.69 per year, with a median cost of 35 cents and a range of no cost at all to $15.78. Only 4.57 percent of registered commuters actually took advantage of the service per year. The average cost per claim was $36.95.

“There did not appear to be a statistically significant correlation between average usage rates and the maximum number of rides permitted, between average cost and service area size, or between average usage and service area size,” the author wrote. “Therefore, agencies need not be parsimonious in setting the limit on the number of rides allowed per year for fear of high use and cost, or abuse.” The full report can be read on the FTA’s website,

—Researchers: William B. Menczer, Federal Transit Administration.

Employers Hold Low Opinions of Transit Incentive Programs

A study on the perceptions of employer-based trip reduction (EBTR) strategies —such as transit check programs, onsite transit pass/token sales or shuttles to work—found that many Atlanta-area employers surveyed held negative views of the programs’ potential costs and benefits. Less than a quarter of employers offered such programs, with some citing a perceived lack of interest by workers, long distances to transit and concerns about administrative costs and operational problems as significant barriers.

The research centered on a pair of surveys conducted in 2003 and 2005. In total, 406 employers participated in Phase 1 (2003) and 343 participated in Phase 2 (2005). Workplaces were mapped, then classified as being in a “rail core” if they were within a quarter-mile of a rail station, a “transit zone” if they were within a quarter-mile of any transit line (rail, express bus and local bus) or a “non-transit zone” if they were beyond a quarter-mile of transit.

Some employers who appeared to have good access to transit claimed not to. The study compared data from the survey about perceived and actual distance to transit, and found that these false perceptions influenced decisions not to offer transit incentives. Among respondents located in transit zones, about 44.3 percent in Phase 1 and 43.5 percent in Phase 2 cited distance as having some influence or a strong influence. Those numbers were significantly less in rail cores – about 19 percent in the 2003 survey and 15 percent in 2005. On average, only 4 percent of companies that regard distance to transit as a barrier offer any transit-related benefit, according to the study.

Other factors cited as barriers to offering EBTR programs were a lack of support from upper management, equity issues among employees and a lack of government incentives. Another area of concern noted by the authors was that employers who did offer onsite transit ticket sales were more likely to view administrative issues as obstacles than those who didn’t offer the benefit.

The authors said strategies to reduce the administrative burdens on employers who participate in these programs should be made a high priority. Efforts should also be taken to educate employers located near transit on the options available to them, they said. The full study, “Employer Perceptions and Implementation of Commute Alternatives Strategies,” was published in the winter 2007 Journal of Public Transportation.

—Researchers: Kai Zuehlke and Randall Guensler, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Keep Walking, There’s Nothing to See Here

Those barren, benchless open spaces in front of so many New York City skyscrapers might be drab for a reason. A planning professor studied about 300 such “bonus” plazas in Manhattan and concluded that in some cases, the developers were required to provide the space, but did not want the architects to design anything that would encourage pedestrians to stop there, treating it like a public park.

According to the author, previous explanations on why these plazas were so unusable for the public suggested that it was an unintended consequence of other processes, such as unimaginative architects copycatting local modernist designs or developers trying to cut costs by neglecting them. However, the author contends those explanations are not supported by the facts.

The research was conducted through a series of site observations, analysis of newly available plaza data and interviews with architects, planners and building managers. This research “reveals that spaces were made intentionally uninviting, and that developers acted to make the plazas inaccessible,” the author noted.

 “Dispersing the Crowd: Bonus Plazas and the Creation of Public Space,” was published in January’s Urban Affairs Review.

—Researchers: Gregory Smithsimon, Barnard College, New York City.

Study Examines Prevention Strategies for Rail Suicides

The high frequency of suicide attempts by train may stem in part from the victims’ false belief that it is a quick painless death, according to a recent study. The author suggests that public outreach focused on debunking high-risk individuals’ false illusions about the quick end might be effective in preventing the suicide attempts, as would creating awareness of such actions impact the emotional state of the train driver.

Statistics say that the average U.S. train driver will be involved in three fatalities (suicides and accidents) over the course of a 25-year career, according to the study. The incidents place drivers at great risk of psychological trauma, a condition that is sometimes exacerbated by the stress of being treated like suspects by police when what they really need is support, and having to wait alone, often in the dark, for emergency responders to arrive.

Rail suicide prevention strategies often focus on physical barriers that keep people from the tracks. However, the author noted, it is usually not feasible to guard long stretches of tracks the whole way. Other prevention techniques include: so-called “suicide pits,” or suspended rails at stations so trains can pass over someone who has fallen; installation of video camera equipment and better lighting; trains entering the station slowly; and redesigning the front of trains to be less dangerous upon impact.

The media has been recorded to have a profound impact on train suicide rates. In the late 1980s, Austrian newspapers competed to print “sensational and detailed descriptions” whenever suicides occurred, according to the author. But when the Austrian Suicide Prevention Association convinced editors not to publicize those stories anymore, there was a 75 percent drop in the rail suicide rate over the next five years. In the 70 days after a German TV miniseries about a 19-year-old who committed suicide by train aired in 1982, there was a 175 percent jump in such incidents among 15-19-year-old males, the study said. The author wondered whether the media could assist in lowering suicides.

“In most metro systems and many railways there are more survivors than fatalities and those who die may experience minutes, hours, days, or weeks of agony before succumbing. Publicizing these facts may prevent some people from choosing this method, but it is the experience of the author of this paper that this suggestion usually meets with resistance, since it also involves publicizing suicides by this method,” the author noted.

Research has found a high rate of mental illness among rail suicide victims, as well as clustering of such deaths near psychiatric hospitals. One study found that a high percentage of victims threatened to commit suicide the day before, but weren’t taken seriously. The author noted that educational strategies might be effective if aimed at high-risk individuals.

The full report, “Railway and Metro Suicides: Understanding the Problem and Prevention Potential,” was published in a 2007 issue of The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention.

—Researchers: Brian L. Mishara, professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal and director of the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia.

Ready to Rumble, Off the Freeways

A New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) researcher recently compiled a list of potential strategies for installing shoulder rumble strips on non-freeways in ways that would pose lesser risks to bicycle riders. The study was completed through a review of policies and design practices throughout the U.S., as well as surveys of agencies in 40 states.

Since their introduction in the 1950s, shoulder rumble strips (SRS) have been used extensively to help prevent run-off-the-road accidents caused by driver inattention. By giving drivers both an audible and physical warning that their vehicle has drifted outside the lines, SRS have proven effective as safety devices, so much so that they are being considered on some non-freeways, according to the report.

However, there are concerns that the strips pose risks to bicyclists using the road shoulders. A key fear is that SRS could cause riders to lose control when they’re struck. Also, because they’re often installed about halfway into the shoulder, they may confine riders closer to the debris that often accumulates along the curbs, or encourage them to ride on the travel lanes instead.

Among the strategies that were said to hold potential were thinner strips that would be easier to cross, or the placement of periodic gaps in the strips that would give riders an area to pass through. Other methods dealt with the positioning of SRS. Moving the strips as close to the travel lane as possible or widening the shoulders would allow more room to bike safely, the report said. The use of SRS on roads where shoulder widths were less than 8 feet was discouraged.

The final report, “Shoulder Rumble Strips and Bicyclists,” was released in June 2007 and sponsored by the New Jersey and U.S. DOTs.

—Researchers: Dr. Janice Daniel, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark.

Study Evaluates Terror Threats, Security in U.S. Rail Systems

History repeats itself, but terrorists may not. A December study by the RAND Corp. identified a series of security vulnerabilities and 17 cost-effective security improvement options in the nation’s passenger rail systems. Among its conclusions, the study warns that systems must prepare for attacks that have been seen before—bombings account for 80 percent of the worldwide terror strikes against rail systems—and re-evaluate their defenses frequently to deal with the evolving threat.

“While it isn’t practical, or desirable, to base security planning on every conceivable terrorist threat, it’s important that security personnel not limit their planning to the obvious attacks from the past,” co-author Jack Riley said in a press release outlining the study’s findings. “We simply can’t be certain what terrorists will do next.”

A generic intracity rail system based on characteristics from existing American systems was constructed for the study. Researchers examined 11 potential attack locations in the system—such as underground infrastructure, ground-level stations and elevated rail lines—and subjected them to eight different hypothetical forms of attack. These were combined to produce a total of 88 attack scenarios of concern. Each was then categorized as high, medium, low or no risk. The effectiveness of security improvement options like canine teams, surveillance systems and blast-resistant containers were assessed when deployed in different parts of the rail system.

Because of their heavy use and accessible nature, rail systems remain attractive terror targets. Most of these attacks have resulted in few or no deaths, so even if security measures could prevent only the largest-scale attacks, “they could significantly reduce the human costs associated with the threat,” according to the study.

“Securing America’s Passenger-Rail Systems,” can be viewed in its entirety at

—Researchers: Jeremy M. Wilson, Brian A. Jackson, Mel Eisman, Paul Steinberg, K. Jack Riley, RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment.

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