Table of Contents
Staying Alive: The Physics,
Mathematics, and Engineering of Safe Driving (whole document)
For most teenagers, I suspect that mechanics is
a fairly boring introduction to the field of physics. In my brief
exposure to tutoring high school students and in perusing introductory
physics books, it seems that most student problems and activities
are very dull. It is hard to get excited about position, velocity,
and acceleration, especially if they appear rather irrelevant
to the average teenager's life. Mechanics, the first (and
often dominant) topic that students study in a physics class,
usually involves problems such as how long thrown balls stay up
in the air or the trajectory of cannon balls. Most teenagers are
interested in themselves, traveling, or cars: therefore, this
module revolves around these subjects.
An introductory section emphasizes the importance
of units, an important topic often ignored, as well as dimensional
analysis. This topic is critical for understanding the topic of
auto mechanics as well as other fields of science. This unit purposely
uses units of feet as well as meters so that students gain experience
in using and converting units.
The module is comprised of three projects. In the
first project, students learn about position and movement by moving
themselves and measuring their position and speed. After students
master the basic concepts of position, distance, and speed, they
will plan a trip using a map for their second project. Most students
like to travel and mastering the concepts of position, time, speed,
and velocity will provide them will allow them to plan trips,
including how long it will take them to be driven to their sports
practice at a new field, or where they should plan on spending
the night during their next trip.
The third and major part of the module was written
in an attempt to save lives. Too many teenage drivers get into
crashes. I hope that by providing students with some realization
of how quickly things can happen while they are driving that they
might drive more prudently and defensively. In this section, students
learn about braking distances, being drunk or talking on a cell
phone while driving, the dangers of driving at night, passing
on 2-lane roads, reaching for a CD while driving, and how much
space to leave between cars on a freeway. Some fun applications
of mechanics, such as the Doppler effect, gas mileage policy,
and the expansion of the universe, are also covered.
This need to complete this unit was catalyzed, in
part, by an editorial (Safe cars, great; safe drivers, better
(5/1/00)) and a subsequent letter to the editor in Design News
magazine. That letter to the editor by Steve Buchholz in the 7/3/00
issue stated "I was hoping to hear the voice of an engineer
calling for programs to help those who take on the responsibility
of controlling a vehicle and the safety of others to understand
the physical laws under which they must operate, and programs
to help people understand the limitations of their vehicles …
and their driving skills." Leonard Evans expresses a similar
sentiment in his excellent book, Traffic Safety and the Driver.
Note that I have not tried to reproduce the typical
high school mechanics text nor have I attempted to derive standard
mechanics equations. This unit will hopefully be useful to introduce,
complement, or supplement existing instructional materials.
Most jobs require summarizing and presenting data
in a meaningful manner, such as in tables, spreadsheets, and graphs.
Therefore, many of these investigations involve calculations for
a wide range of parameters, with subsequent tabulating and plotting
of the data.
This module is at an early stage of development,
with much more yet to come. It is still incomplete in some areas.
I have tried to write this module so that it may
be used at either the middle school or high school level. Please
let me know whether or not I have succeeded. Constructive suggestions
are always welcome - send me an email at Larry.Woolf@gat.com.