The Softer Side of Research

Civil & Environmental Engineering

Taking Risks: Professor Hamdar applies decision making theory to driving behavior to capture how much risk drivers will take in various conditions.

Professor Samer Hamdar knows most of the traffic congestion patterns between GW's Foggy Bottom Campus and its Virginia Science and Technology Campus (VSTC). He knows all the back roads between them and when to use them. With a research lab at the VSTC and classes on the main campus, Hamdar sometimes has to be at both campuses on the same day. "I started experimenting with different transit systems, and I'm trying to be as creative as I can," he says with a smile.

Hamdar studies transportation engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and as he sees it, all transportation users are simply decision makers whose behavior should be studied in order to develop better transportation infrastructure systems. And Hamdar is seeking a holistic theory that explains these behaviors.

To do this, he is pushing beyond the transportation research areas for which GW traditionally has been known. "GW is known for the hard transportation side-crash analysis and investigation, intelligent transportation systems, and vehicle dynamics and controls, for example," explains Hamdar. "The soft transportation side works on problems that deal mostly with the system-the control logic, traffic flow theory, and other areas. My thought is that we're in Washington, D.C., which has so many transportation-related problems but it's also home to different transportation agencies. This makes DC an interesting area to be in, engaging both users and decision makers."

From this wide array of problems, Hamdar has chosen to study four: pedestrian detection and modeling; evacuation modeling; sustainability; and driver behavior and the safety impact of geometric and weather-related characteristics. He and colleagues from Louisiana State University (Drs. Dixit Vinayak and Brian Wolshon) and Cal Polytechnic University (Dr. Anurag Pande) have a National Science Foundation grant to analyze how different geometric characteristics (such as curvature, median types, and grades) and weather-related characteristics (such as visibility and precipitation) will impact driver behavior. Specifically, they want to know how drivers perceive and react to certain driving conditions, and they are using a model based on cognitive theory to try to capture how much risk drivers are willing to take in these conditions.

Eventually, Hamdar wants to study a multi-modal transportation system, one that looks at pedestrians, bikers, transit users, and drivers simultaneously. He sees this as a growth area for study because it fits under the umbrella of sustainability. Hamdar is striking out into new territory as he tries to claim part of the soft side of transportation engineering research for GW, and he is very optimistic about his prospects. "This is an opportunity. We have fertile ground for growing a research program with our new building, our new dean, and our growing faculty. It's a challenge being the only person here in this field, but with challenges come great opportunities."