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Engineer's Resourcefulness Drives Investment in Boston Bike Safety Initiative

Monday, May 20, 2013

Alex Epstein is passionate about pedestrian and bike safety. When Volpe announced its first-ever Innovation Challenge last fall, Epstein proposed a study to examine the safety and potential fuel economy benefits of truck side guards. Side guards are installed on trucks and buses to protect bicyclists and pedestrians from falling underneath the body of a vehicle.

Epstein's preliminary research showed that side guards save lives. The Volpe engineer found that in the United Kingdom, after side guards became required on most heavy-duty vehicles, there was a 61 percent drop in fatalities for bicyclists impacting the side of a truck moving in the same direction, and a 20 percent drop in fatalities for pedestrians.

While Epstein and his team did not "win" Volpe's Innovation Challenge, he continued to explore the implementation of side guards and personally invested his time in engaging transportation stakeholders about this simple yet promising technology. He delivered a talk about the potential benefits of side guards at a LivableStreets event in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An advisor to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino heard his talk and contacted Epstein to learn more about his research.

Epstein's research and resourcefulness paid off on May 15, 2013, when the City of Boston announced, as part of Bike Week, its plan to add side guards to 19 large public works vehicles, calling this initiative "the largest pilot to date in the United States." According to the City of Boston press release, "The collaborative effort between the City's Public Works Department, Central Fleet Management, and Boston Bikes program was supported by research from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe Center in Cambridge. The City hopes to inspire other truck owners to consider side guards for their fleets."

Epstein, a Volpe engineer who works on energy and sustainability projects, first took interest in aerodynamic side skirts, or fairings, as a technology to help reduce energy consumption on large trucks. Later he learned about the safety benefits of the related class of devices called side guards.

"As a systems center, Volpe scientists and engineers look across technical domain boundaries to find solutions that improve transportation," said Epstein. "The crossover between these technologies is particularly exciting because, in the future, smooth-paneled versions of side guards could both improve safety and increase fuel economy, reducing the impact of transportation on the environment."

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, in announcing bicycle safety initiatives, said, "Our city was devastated by the five cyclist fatalities in 2012, and we want to do everything in our power to prevent future tragedies. We'll continue to work tirelessly to improve the safety of our streets for all."

Alex Epstein, engineer at Volpe and Mark Mooers, foreman for Boston Public Works