A College of Engineering master’s student, Shaheli Senanayake’s project takes a unique approach to road safety research. It offers an original perspective that focuses on what Saskatchewan’s best-performing intersections are doing right to help improve safety.
“A roadway network’s intersections are among the riskiest locations because they serve as a convergence point for pedestrians and vehicles, and are a common location for serious side-impact crashes and a source of traffic congestion,” she said. “In Canada, about 30 per cent of all traffic crashes happen at or near intersections, and they cause serious injuries and even death.”
She said the goal of the research is to identify what makes these well-performing intersections safe and use that knowledge to design safer intersections in the future.
“Traditionally, efforts to improve road safety have concentrated on places with a history of many accidents,” Senanayake said. “However, this research takes a different approach. It focuses on intersections that are doing well in terms of safety.”
About 200 intersections in Saskatoon and Regina will be studied by Senanayake over a three-year period. She will analyze things such as the geometric design of the intersections, and how safety features such as a protected left turn lane or a channelized lane are used effectively in intersections with low-collision rates.
Senanayake has many goals for her project, including improving road safety, reducing traffic congestion, increasing social awareness of traffic safety and being careful on roadways while in the driver’s seat or as a pedestrian.
She said the project can also lend interesting insights into how intersection safety can provide economic and environmental benefits as well – two areas of major concern for cities in urban planning.
“Fewer collisions mean less vehicle damage, which can lead to reduced emissions from the production of replacement vehicles,” said Senanayake. “Smoother traffic flow can also potentially result in reduced fuel consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions overall.”
Economically, traffic accidents impose a substantial economic burden on society in terms of medical costs, property damage, lost productivity, and increased insurance premiums, Senanayake said. By reducing the number of accidents and their severity, research findings have potential to help alleviate these costs for the public and individuals.
The expertise of her research supervisor, Dr. Emanuele Sacchi (PhD), an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Geological and Environmental Engineering at USask, along with intersection data collected from satellite images and local traffic accident data, will help Senanayake analyze which geometric elements of intersections appear to make them a low-collision site.
“This [research] approach allows for the discovery of factors that contribute to road safety excellence, which may have been overlooked in traditional blackspot-oriented studies,” she said. “These factors can then be used when building new intersections to make them safer for everyone on the road.”
Senanayake is still in the process of analyzing the data collected from the study and plans to present her results in 2024. She recently competed in USask’s Three Minute Thesis competition, an academic contest where she placed second for successfully presenting her research project to a non-scientific audience in only three minutes.
“In the long term, I aim to take on leadership roles that allow me to influence transportation policy and advocate for strategies that can save lives,” said Senanayake. “The potential to improve road safety and prevent injuries and fatalities can be a powerful driving force.”
The research is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
This article first ran as part of the 2023 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the USask Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.