Montana State University

MSU engineer works to improve Montana's two-lane highways

January 16, 2009 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service

Ahmed Al-Kaisy poses in a traffic laboratory at MSU's Western Transportation Institute (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Montana State University civil engineering professor Ahmed Al-Kaisy sympathizes with anyone who has ever been stuck driving behind a slow vehicle on one of the state's two-lane highways.

Al-Kaisy, the program manager for safety and operations at the university's Western Transportation Institute, researches ways to measure how satisfied drivers are with their experiences on Montana's rural highways.

Since coming to MSU in 2003, Al-Kaisy's research has shown, for example, that on a moderately busy two-lane highway, a driver may spend 30 to 50 percent of the trip stuck behind a slower vehicle.

Apart from being frustrating, being stuck behind another vehicle requires more attention and focus from drivers as they look for passing opportunities. This may increase stress and lead to risky maneuvers. Gradually, the factors build up, and the road becomes more dangerous.

Measuring those levels of driver satisfaction provides useful information to the state's transportation authorities, who can use the ratings to justify spending money to improve a roadway, Al-Kaisy said.

And Al-Kaisy's not short on motivation. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the fatality rate for crashes on rural roads is more than twice the fatality rate for urban crashes.

"Those are statistics that will always stimulate us to do better and better at what we do," he said.

Solving practical problems and saving lives drew Al-Kaisy to engineering. He began his career studying soil mechanics at the University of Baghdad in his native Iraq before switching to transportation engineering in his first term. He earned his master's degree from the university in 1985.

At that time, Iraq's economy was booming, he said. Engineers had no trouble finding work designing and building the country's new highways and bridges. So after his required service in the army -- as an engineer, of course -- Al-Kaisy started his own engineering firm in Baghdad and began working with roads and infrastructure.

But not long after that came the 1990 Gulf War, which shattered much of Iraq's economy, infrastructure and stability, leading most educated people and professionals, including Al-Kaisy, to leave the country for good.

Leaving was a hard choice to make, he said. Strong family ties almost kept him in the region, and for about a year and a half, he lived and worked in the not-too-distant Jordan.

Eventually, Al-Kaisy moved to Ontario, where he earned his doctorate and researched freeways and their traffic issues. From there, he moved to Peoria, Ill., where he worked as a transportation professor for about three years before coming to MSU.

"When I moved to Bozeman, there was a very natural shift in my focus to two-lane rural highways, which dominate Montana's highway system," he said. "That shift in focus, from huge, multi-lane roads to smaller rural highways speaks to the critical ties between what we do in research and the surrounding community and environment."

Two-lane highways are unique, he said. Drivers on those roads feel the effect of traffic congestion -- and its effect on speed and passing -- more readily than they do on larger highways. As an example, Al-Kaisy noted how even a moderate amount of traffic can make a highway like U.S. 191 south of Bozeman unpleasant to drive on.

Al-Kaisy's research looks for new ways to measure congestion by more accurately gauging statistics like the distances between cars on a highway. Better measurements, he said, mean that authorities can make better choices about how to manage congestion on the state's roadways and use Montana's transportation dollars more effectively.

"In transportation, you can affect change in a person's life," he said. "You can implement a change at, say, an intersection and feel that change. You can put in a safety feature that will save lives."

Related Stories

"WTI installs one of the country's largest driving simulators," Nov. 10, 2008 --

"Federal focus on rural road safety brings high-level visitors to WTI," Oct. 21, 2008 --

"WTI director named to national transportation advisory panel," Aug. 6, 2007 --

"Rural drivers using cell phones are likely to cause accidents," June 23, 2005 --

Ahmed Al-Kaisy at 406-994-6116 or