PI Spotlight: Neal Hawkins

hawkinsNeal Hawkins, director of the Center for Transportation Research and Education at Iowa State University, served as principal investigator on a practical and useful ICT research project conducted on behalf of the Illinois Department of Transportation. In the project, Hawkins and his research team measured the field performance of different all-weather pavement markings on Illinois roadways, which are designed to provide retroreflectivity even in rainy, nighttime conditions. The researchers measured the performance of pavement markings across the state and reported on how well the materials performed—which in some cases was not up to IDOT expectations. (A copy of the report for that project is available on ICT’s website.)

A follow-up study currently in progress focuses on manufactured all-weather tapes—typically used for the white skip lines on high-speed, multi-lane roads in Illinois. Hawkins and his team will consider the performance of these manufactured materials in an effort to provide guidance to IDOT districts throughout Illinois. The results are expected to support safety measures and cost strategies statewide for many years.

Hawkins received his master’s degree in civil engineering from Iowa State University, with a focus on transportation. His decision to focus on transportation, however, came much earlier. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Oklahoma, he worked as an undergraduate researcher. That work, he says, “reinforced what an incredible role transportation plays as a component in our economy, mobility, and safety.”

Hawkins says he also learned during that time how to work among a diverse and “often times opinionated” group of people. As he explains, “The example that makes me smile the most is the project where Dr. Tom Maze and I traveled to every Oklahoma DOT district to meet with district engineers. Our assignment was to discuss what pavement management was, how it worked, why they should be interested in it, and what they see as barriers to implementation. This was about 1987 and, wow, it was amazing to be part of the unscripted conversation that often began with a few pleasantries but transitioned to the honest comment of ‘If you think I am going to let a computer program tell me how to …’ Talk about science meets the real world!”

Over the years he has seen how technology has improved transportation research. “Geographic information systems have revolutionized our analytical and visually informative capabilities. This impacts everything we do as engineers—from data collection, quality assurance, analysis, and most important, relational integration with other data. For example, would you like to see crash by location? How about factors such as weather, truck volume, pavement condition, grade, cross slope, signs, markings, environmental? The list goes on. We have much to learn from our colleagues in other fields, and the change brought about by GIS integration, layers, enhanced analytics, and thematic colors is a change worth acknowledging.”

He adds that today’s information technology systems have improved the ability to understand and react to current traffic operational conditions. “We receive field device data by the second, and we can send and receive large data packets statewide.

Hawkins notes that the tool that is the most exciting and beneficial to transportation engineers “is probably within 3 feet of you right now—your smartphone. You simply have to acknowledge the effect that phones have on our industry. For example, any smartphone can now collect geospatial data, including images and video. Even more, the phones serve as probe data points for purposes that seem to grow exponentially. In short, agencies can access probe mobility data across the majority of their roadways every minute. The untapped power and influence of smartphones continues to amaze me.”

He closes by putting it all into perspective: “The technology is different, but the message my late professor shared with every district engineer in my home state almost 30 years ago, is the same: Let the innovative data and tools support, not replace, your excellent efforts toward improved decision making and effective investment.”