professor drives for safer highways|
Elected to National Academy of Engineering, Nicholas Garber’s career
is in high gear
Courtesy of the School of Engineering and Applied Science
engineering professor Nicholas Garber’s research
on interstate safety has made the nation’s highways
safer. He has worked not only to to improve roads in the
United States, but also in his native country, Sierra Leone.
By Charlotte Crystal
seemed like a good idea at the time. A number of states established
differential speed limits for interstates
in 1987 — which allowed cars to go 65 mph
while big trucks were kept to 55 — as the federal government eased back
on the 55-mph speed limit imposed nationwide to conserve fuel during the 1970s
But research conducted by Nicholas Garber, University
of Virginia professor of civil
that the dual speed-limit system was not effective
in reducing two-vehicle traffic accidents
involving trucks and cars.
there was evidence that differential speed limits increased
the rate of two-vehicle accidents. His statistical
examining the impact of differential speed limits on traffic safety didn’t make the
bestseller lists in 1991, but it did capture the attention of dozens of highway
officials around the country and led to changes that made the nation’s
Because of Garber’s findings, many states that had imposed the dual speed
limits lifted them and reinstituted uniform speed limits for trucks and cars.
(Virginia returned to a uniform 65-mph interstate speed limit in 1994.)
The speed limit study is just one example
of the many ways in which Garber’s research on traffic
operations has been applied to improve highway safety.
This year, in recognition of his more than two decades
of work in the field of civil engineering — in research, teaching and professional service — the
National Academy of Engineering elected Garber a member. A private,
independent institution, the NAE advises the federal government on
engineering and technology
issues that relate to public policy.
to the National Academy of Engineering is considered to
be the highest honor that can be bestowed on an engineer
by his or her peers,” said William
Wulf, president of NAE and a faculty member in U.Va.’s Department
of Computer Science. “Nick is the ninth member of the U.Va. engineering faculty
to be so honored and [his election] reflects the high caliber of our
am pleased to welcome Nick to our ranks.”
Garber’s other accolades include the 1996 D. Grant Mickle Award from the
Transportation Research Board, the 2002 Distinguished Professor Award from the
University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science,
the 2002 Edmund R. Ricker Award from the Institute of Transportation
and a Commemorative
Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Garber is
a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers and of the
Civil Engineers of Great Britain.
He also co-authored the widely used textbook “Traffic and Highway Engineering,” published
by Brooks/Cole, with Lester Hoel, professor of civil engineering at
Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1936, Garber received
degree in civil engineering from the University of London in 1961.
He worked for a few consulting firms in England during the next few
years, until he received
a call from his homeland. On the verge of independence from Great Britain,
the young government of Sierra Leone was calling for educated Sierra
come back and contribute their skills to build a strong, independent
Engineers, in particular, received personal phone calls.
Garber signed on with the country’s Department of Public Works,
where he soon was named second in command for the western region. For
the next two years,
he designed roads and bridges throughout Freetown. Then he was sent
upcountry to be the head engineer for the
Kenema-Kono area, where he managed the
design and construction of a clinic for children under
the age of 5, a hospital and several concrete bridges to
Following this time, he returned to Freetown and supervised
of an extension
to the Port of Freetown.
After four years, Garber decided he’d
done his part and chose to continue his education. He left
the country to pursue graduate studies
in civil engineering
in the United States. In 1971, Garber received his doctorate
from Carnegie Mellon University, and after graduation accepted
a teaching post at
the State University
of New York-Buffalo. But the winters in upstate New York
were more than the West African had bargained for. When
a teaching position opened
up at the University
of Sierra Leone, he grabbed it, eventually becoming the
first dean of the school of
Eight years later, it was time for a sabbatical, which
Garber had planned to spend at Arizona State University.
Hoel, one of his former Carnegie Mellon professors
and then-chairman of U.Va.’s
Department of Civil Engineering, Garber was persuaded to consider a position
at U.Va.’s School of Engineering and
Applied Science, which he did. Garber joined the University’s
faculty in September 1980 and was offered a permanent faculty position
the following year.
He has been here ever since.
Initially, Garber was the only African — or African American — at
the engineering school and one of only about two
dozen black faculty at the University. The situation for
improved since then — there are currently more than 100 full-time black
faculty members at U.Va., and half a dozen at the engineering school — but
the numbers are not as high as they could be, Garber said.
When Garber first arrived in Charlottesville with
his family, Hoel and his wife Unni extended them
met other newcomers through a “Welcome Wagon” group, of which they
were the only black family. At a dinner party hosted by the Garbers, one of their
guests told his hosts that that was the first time he had entered a black man’s
The Garbers joined Trinity Episcopal Church, which
helped broaden their social circle. The proximity
in Washington, D.C., also
helped the family’s new life in Central Virginia.
Ada Garber soon opened a day care center, which
she operated for more than two decades. Her
business helped many women
at the University
both pursue professional careers and rear families.
The Garber children also prospered. Now adults,
is an architect;
gave up her job as regional manager with Kaiser
Permanente to help her husband
insurance company; and Elaine, 33, manages
rental property in Maryland.
In addition to his teaching and research, Garber
also has contributed many hours of professional
service to the Transportation
arm of the National
Academies. His work in this area has included
participation on several national policy
limits in work zones,
possible limits to the size and weight of
large trucks permitted on the nation’s
highways, and characteristics of traffic that might affect the frequency
and seriousness of automobile accidents.
an American citizen, Garber still travels to his homeland
from time to time to see
elder sister (all his other siblings have
emigrated either to the U.S. or to the
U.K.), and to
serve as a consulting
like to go back and look at the roads I designed,” he said.
He admits to no regrets.
were different actions I could have taken over the years,” Garber
said, “but I took God’s directions, and I thank Him for that.”