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UMTRI celebrating 50 years of transportation research excellence

January 8, 2015

The U-M Transportation Research Institute is celebrating a half-century of making transportation safe and carrying out research that has had an impact on the lives of road users around the world.

UMTRI research findings have influenced public policies, safety regulations, industry standards, and product design, all leading to safer highway travel and lives saved.

The institute plans a yearlong anniversary celebration, beginning Sunday at the Transportation Research Board's 94th annual meeting, and continuing in February with the launch of a speaker series on campus featuring UMTRI researchers and their university collaborators.

"We are using this anniversary as a springboard for the future. UMTRI is looking forward to its next half-century of impactful and transformative research," said Peter Sweatman, UMTRI's director since September 2004.

UMTRI started in 1965 as the Highway Safety Research Institute and was founded through a gift to the university from the automotive industry. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, as well as the Automobile Manufacturers Association and Fruehauf Corp., contributed a total of $10 million.

The responsibility for forming the new institute was given to Vice President for Research A. Geoffrey Norman. He appointed a 12-member ad hoc faculty program-advisory committee, with Robert L. Hess, professor of engineering mechanics, as its chairman. Hess subsequently was appointed HSRI's first director.

HSRI's initial mission was to analyze the elements of the complex and dynamic system of people, vehicles and the environments in which they operate, and to develop practical and effective solutions to the urgent problems of highway safety within that system. Programs were defined to encourage comprehensive and integrated approaches to highway safety through interdisciplinary research.

In late 1982 the institute's name was changed to the U-M Transportation Research Institute to more accurately reflect the broad array of transportation issues that the staff had targeted as topics for research investigation.

Researchers within UMTRI continue to pursue the goals stated in the original mission by means of projects that emphasize the diversity of disciplines involved in transportation research.

"For 50 years our work has focused on the most critical issues in transportation-safety research," Sweatman said. "Throughout our history we have maintained a structure that requires a multidisciplinary approach. Our researchers are experts in mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, behavioral sciences, statistical analysis and public-policy analysis."

Other directors included Barry Kantowitz (2000-04), Patricia Waller (1989-2000), Robert Ervin (acting director 1986-89), Howard Bunch (acting director 1985-86), Jim O'Day (acting director 1983-85) and Hess (1966-83).

Over the years UMTRI researchers have conducted more than 1,000 projects, which have in turn resulted in a widely accessed series of publications.

"UMTRI reports have been downloaded over 1.5 million times from U-M's digital repository, Deep Blue," said Robert Sweet, information resources manager. "People continue to download reports in large numbers from all points in UMTRI's history. "

In 2014, the top 10 reports downloaded included work from the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, as well as from the current year.

"What this tells me is that our work has had value and continued impact," Sweet said.