Sept. 17-30, 2004
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Civil engineering professor drives for safer highways
Elected to National Academy of Engineering, Nicholas Garber’s career is in high gear
Nick Garber
Courtesy of the School of Engineering and Applied Science
Civil 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

It 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 oil crisis.

But research conducted by Nicholas Garber, University of Virginia professor of civil engineering, showed that the dual speed-limit system was not effective in reducing two-vehicle traffic accidents
involving trucks and cars.

Moreover, there was evidence that differential speed limits increased the rate of two-vehicle accidents. His statistical report 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 highways safer.

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.

“Election 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 faculty. I 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 Engineers 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 Institution of 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 U.Va.

Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1936, Garber received his bachelor’s 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 Leoneans to come back and contribute their skills to build a strong, independent country.
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 replace the wooden bridges then in service. Following this time, he returned to Freetown and supervised the construction 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 engineering there.

Eight years later, it was time for a sabbatical, which Garber had planned to spend at Arizona State University. But during a telephone conversation with 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 minority has 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 a warm welcome. Garber, his wife, Ada, and their three daughters 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 home.

The Garbers joined Trinity Episcopal Church, which helped broaden their social circle. The proximity of friends and relatives 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 faculty and administrators at the University both pursue professional careers and rear families. The Garber children also prospered. Now adults, Alison, 42, is an architect; Valerie, 40, recently gave up her job as regional manager with Kaiser Permanente to help her husband run his private
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 Research Board, an arm of the National Academies. His work in this area has included participation on several national policy committees established by Congress to study speed 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.

Now an American citizen, Garber still travels to his homeland from time to time to see his elder sister (all his other siblings have emigrated either to the U.S. or to the U.K.), and to serve as a consulting engineer on various government projects. “I like to go back and look at the roads I designed,” he said.

He admits to no regrets.

“There were different actions I could have taken over the years,” Garber said, “but I took God’s directions, and I thank Him for that.”


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