Researcher spotlight: Ron Van Houten
Ron Van Houten is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Western Michigan University and a researcher with the Roadway Safety Institute. He is a behavior analysis expert in the areas of traffic safety, pedestrian safety, intelligent transportation systems, traffic calming, bicycle safety, seat belt use, and reducing impaired driving.
Van Houten says he was drawn to the field of psychology when, as an engineering student, he took a course in behavioral psychology as an elective. “It got my attention because it looked very much like behavioral engineering,” he says. His research interests include all aspects of traffic and pedestrian safety, the use of technology to implement behavioral principles, and community/organizational psychology. Many of the tools he has developed are in the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
Specific projects have included conducting research on bicycle lanes, participating in the development of shared-use bicycle marking, and completing a number of large-scale studies on reducing nighttime pedestrian crashes. Many of these projects included social norming elements to target shifts in the safety culture.
In the fall of 2015, Van Houten presented at three pedestrian safety workshops offered by the Roadway Safety Institute (see related article). He discussed both pedestrian-focused and driver-focused countermeasures, with an emphasis on innovative techniques supported by recent research. He also emphasized human factors, noting that changing the safety culture in a community is as important as installing countermeasures.
Van Houten says the most gratifying aspect of his work is developing tools that can reduce traffic fatalities and injuries. “I also enjoy examining ways to increase options of healthy transportation choices.”
Increasing walking and bicycling as well as increasing the safety of both modes is critical, he says. “When I was growing up most children walked or bicycled to school. Today this is relatively rare,” he says. “We are seeing the consequences of these changes in the increase in the incidence of childhood obesity.”
Van Houten received the Patricia Waller Award at TRB in 2014 for changing driver behavior in yielding the right-of-way to pedestrians on a citywide basis. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Dalhousie University and a B.A. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.