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Learning from mistakes that never happened    Nov 13, 2018

Learning from mistakes that never happened
Nov 13, 2018




Yearly, over 1800 Ph.D. students hand in their thesis in Flanders. These studies easily find their way to scientific journals in the form of publications, but only a tiny fraction manages to reach the outside world. Therefore, the PhD Cup was founded, a competition where recently graduated Ph.D. students inspire our society with their scientific research. Tim De Ceunynck is one of them and even managed to get into the finals, which take place tonight. So we at inSCIght decided to drop by at Vias Institute where he currently works and discover what he does and why he wants to share it.


“Share your knowledge, it is a way to achieve immortality.” – Dalai Lama.  

“Ever since I was a child, I was captivated by science”, Tim tells us. “I devoured encyclopedia faster than my parents could buy them. While my classmates in middle school wanted to become a police officer or fire fighter, I wanted to become a professor, inspired by comic book figures such as professor Barabas in ‘Suske en Wiske’. This interest for research and science remained present throughout my life and eventually resulted in me pursuing a Ph.D. at the Transportation Research Institute (IMOB) of UHasselt.”

We can learn a lot from things that go wrong, especially in traffic. But Tim takes a rather unconventional approach. He looks at situations where things almost went wrong. “Most of the time we work with data of traffic accidents, but the downside of this is that the data are often very rough and incomplete. On top of that it is kind of cynical that you have to wait for accidents to happen, before you can intervene. I was of the opinion that this could and should be done differently. We need to be proactive.”


Analyzing near-accidents is not something new. Already in the 70’s and 80’s scientists took a closer look at these situations and discovered that the key aspects and behaviors that cause near-accidents are very similar to those of actual accidents. “However, near-accidents occur much more often, almost a thousand fold, and don’t require people to get injured. The major obstacle back then was that everything had to be observed by persons on site, making it very labor intensive and subjective. This resulted in hardly anyone using this technique.”

“Nowadays, the rise of video cameras and analysis software has completely changed the scene. At the University of Lund, located in Sweden, a novel technique was recently developed which uses automated video analysis software to study near-accidents. It was here that I learned how to implement this tool in order to introduce it in Belgium. We also started a close collaboration. Specifically I looked which of the currently used factors are valuable to detect and analyze near-accidents and how to develop and test new improved ones. In addition to this I also investigated and analyzed the systematic and structured behavior of people on the road, because you can also learn a lot from normal behavior.”

The technique Tim and his colleagues developed is especially valuable to study unique questions to which normal traffic accident analysis cannot provide answers. “For example we looked at the safety of bicyclists in mixed bus lanes, and the potential distraction of drivers caused by wind turbines alongside motorways. These cases proved that analyzing near-accidents is not only interesting from an academic perspective but can also really contribute to road safety. It also allows us to test innovative safety measures such as infrastructural adaptations in a reliable and quick fashion. This ensures the safety of the road users and saves money.”   


“Up until now I mostly communicated like all researchers, through conferences and publications to my colleagues. However, the Ph.D. Cup was an eye-opener for me. It showed me the vast possibilities that exist within science communication and that people are really interested in our research. It is the latter that is the most fun about communicating about your Ph.D., seeing the positive and enthusiastic reactions of the people around you. Also these people have the right to be informed about your research as it is usually funded with taxpayer’s money.”

But it doesn’t seem to stop there. “Doing science communication increases your reach and impact as a scientist. What is the point of doing groundbreaking research if no one knows about it? A beautiful and tragic example of this is the discovery of penicillin. It was already discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, but he only published it in an obscure journal and never talked about it. It took 10 years before people found out. Millions of lives could have been saved thanks to science communication. Also participating in outreach helps you with obtaining research funds, networking and so much more. I would definitely recommend everyone to do it."

"And to close off, communicating about science is also just fun to do.”


Images by © VRT and © Kevin Faingnaert.