When thinking about road safety, epidemiology might not immediately spring to mind. But Anne Harris, a researcher at Ryerson, looks at road safety from a public health perspective, adding to the research on this massive subject an intense focus on methodology. We met with Anne in advance of our meet-up event, Toronto’s Streets at a Crossroads, of which she is a panelist, to ask a few questions about her research.
What’s your particular interest in road safety as an epidemiologist?
An epidemiologist studies patterns of health, disease and injury. I study the patterns of injury we see on our roads. Specifically I’m trying to get better, more reliable estimates of how many people are injured, and how we count injuries…which, when you think about it, is a really tricky question. Ultimately my work helps to measure risk and safety, while trying to avoid biases. This gives us a better understanding of the effect of road environments on risk.
You were an investigator on the BICE study, which measured injury risk across cycling routes in Toronto and Vancouver.
Yes–we looked at road design risk factors, and how road design influences risk and injuries, across a range of cycling routes here and out west. It was the first study to empirically verify that Toronto’s streetcar tracks increased risk for cycling injury in Toronto. The project produced a number of studies between 2009 and 2016.
Road safety perhaps has special need to be multidisciplinary. We need to have a comprehensive team involving a lot of different expertise to tackle the problem.
What can we learn by looking at road safety from a public health perspective?
Public health scientists, especially epidemiologists, are used to obsessing over data and measurement of risk using high quality methods. Given how much change is inherent in our environment, we constantly need to be accounting for change in our analyses of patterns, and that’s what epidemiologists have special training to do.
Public health researchers are also passionate about prevention. It’s through prevention that we have the biggest opportunity to save lives. Public health has played a key role in road safety for a long time–it’s a major contributor to the science. We work together with planners, engineers, policy makers and others. Road safety perhaps has special need to be multidisciplinary. We need to have a comprehensive team involving a lot of different expertise to tackle the problem.
What’s next in your research on road safety?
I’m interested in doing further work on injury risk as our infrastructure evolves, repeating our methods when new road designs are implemented, to see if we’re seeing different injury patterns on the ground. And I’d love to study active commuting to see what kinds of factors might create stops and starts in this pattern related to health. Like, what happens to bicyclists who are injured in terms of future transportation? From there, we would have a better understanding of the benefits of injury prevention.
Anne Harris is Assistant Professor in the School of Occupational and Public Health at Ryerson University, and has a “status-only appointment” with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at University of Toronto. Read about Anne and her work at https://anneharris.weebly.com.