VTPD Officer Ratcliffe

Virginia Tech Police Officer Ratcliffe poses for a photo, Oct. 14, 2018.

The Virginia Tech Center for Infrastructure-Based Safety Systems (CIBSS) and the Virginia State Police have teamed up to help stop roadside injuries and fatalities of officers in the field.

Officers are often out in difficult, low visibility conditions among drivers who may not be the most alert. It is the job of the researchers at CIBSS to reduce the number of these injuries by increasing the visibility of the officers and their vehicles.

The CIBSS is part of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which researches various aspects of automotive and transportation issues and attempts to find solutions. Research ranges from self-driving cars to using a different kind of gravel on wintery roads.

The project leader of this team is Travis Terry under the supervision of Ronald Gibbons, the director of CIBSS. Their efforts include surveying several participating police agencies, as well as designing different lighting schemes, vehicle markings and patterns on both officers’ uniforms and cars. The survey system they use runs through Qualtrics, a simple but powerful survey system that allows the team to generate and receive real-time diagnostics and data.

The team initially monitored traffic and police behavior using radar and cameras along high-traffic roads, but needed more data than these specific locations could provide. The need for more data led them to consider partnering with police agencies around Virginia. These measurements, however, did give the researchers valuable insight into how drivers react to police cars or officers on the side of the road.

According to Terry, officers have a deep connection with the police vehicles and uniforms.

“A lot of this stuff is personal,” Terry said. “Any change is taken personally (as) an officer spends most of his time in it.”

The uniforms have a history behind them as well. Changing these uniforms affects not only the brand and sense of authority the uniform brings, but also its historical significance.

“The uniform colors actually date back to the Civil War,” Gibbons said, “and this legacy is taken seriously.”

Exact details of the study cannot be disclosed due to the sensitive nature of the research and live environment in which the tests are taking place. The secrecy is also to protect the identities of the officers participating for privacy and other reasons.

“We don’t want to give out too much information at this time,” Gibbons said, “because someone might target the marked cars.”

Despite this secrecy, the team at CIBSS is willing to take on graduate and undergraduate student researchers. The center has had 20 undergraduate students across all fields of study conducting research and tests; some have even worked at CIBSS for all four years of their time at Virginia Tech.

The team frequently reaches out to other departments looking for students to join their research initiatives and design teams. Even students from fields other than the traditional STEM fields are welcome to join if they can show dedication and interest. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute itself supports close to 300 students for research and other programs. More information about these opportunities can be found on the VTTI website.

Currently the team does not have any definite future projects planned, but is looking into several different areas that might need attention, such as unmarked police vehicles and how automated vehicles react to officer presence.

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