Safe Roads has won New Zealand’s premier road safety award for the innovative use of virtual reality technology to test safety designs at rail level crossings.

Beca has been working alongside the NZ Transport Agency and others as part of the Safe Roads alliance since the initiative began in 2015, to improve road safety across New Zealand.

The 3M Traffic Safety Innovation Award for 2019 recognises exemplary innovation and effectiveness to save lives and injuries on roads and was presented at the Engineering NZ Transportation Group’s annual conference in Wellington on 5 March.

The winning team included Beca’s Jack Donaghy, Gary Nates, Clement Germain, Joshua Forrest and Luan You, who helped Safe Roads pioneer the use of virtual reality (VR) technology to quickly and cost-effectively obtain user feedback and test safety design ideas.

The ‘human factors’ approach, enabled by VR, highlights issues that could otherwise be missed in a standard two-dimensional design process.

“Our 2019 winner demonstrates an effective and innovative approach to improving safety at road rail level crossings, which can represent a major risk for road users,” says Engineering NZ Transportation Group National Chair, Jeanette Ward.

"Safe Roads is being congratulated through this award for developing such an innovative and effective project, which could be applied to rail level crossings in other parts of the country or around the world.”

In early 2018, Safe Roads converted laser scanning survey data for the SH29 Hinuera Road rail level crossing into a three-dimensional model able to be viewed with VR technology. Within the model, an innovative new design treatment of in-ground pavement lights was tested in advance of the level crossing to warn approaching drivers of an oncoming train. The lights were set up in various configurations and were then experienced and assessed by users in the VR driving simulator to acquire feedback on their respective effectiveness.

The outputs from the testing and preferred options can easily be shared in a VR environment through 360-degree videos.  This allowed a range of design options to be tested and preferred designs taken forward to delivery with greater confidence of effectiveness.

Judges for the 3M award considered the specific features of the many projects submitted, particularly in terms of innovation in thinking and technology, problem-solving as well as the real benefits in reducing trauma. Cost-effectiveness and transferability to other areas were other key criteria.

Beyond the safety innovation award, the Transportation Group conference was a big night for other reasons, with Beca’s Kathy Matete recognised with the Highly Commended Young Author Prize. Kathy presented at the conference, on ‘How Hackathons and Smart Cities relate’. It was a presentation about how hackathons are being used to drive technology solutions in the transport industry, and to prepare a smart workforce with digital and data skills.


Safe Roads was established to deliver a programme of road and roadside safety improvements to the State Highway network. It is made up of the NZ Transport Agency, Beca and fellow infrastructure consultancies Bloxam, Burnett & Olliver (BBO) and Northern Civil Consulting.

The other finalists for this hotly-contested award were:

  • NZ Trucking Association - Safety MAN Road Safety Truck
  • Stantec Ltd - Understanding Vulnerable Road User Crash Risk on Auckland’s High-Risk Arterials 
  • Dunedin City Council - Dunedin Central City Schools Cluster
  • Abley Ltd - Northland Programming Tool 

Figure 1 – From left; Jack Donaghy, Beca Technical Director – Project Management (and member of Safe Roads) with Matt Ensor, Beca Business Director - Advisory Services

Figure 2 - Testing one of the earlier VR simulations with NZTA and KiwiRail in Wellington in July 2018

Figure 3 – Train driver views (day and night) versus car driver views of same level crossing

Figure 4 – Kathy Matete receiving her Highly Commended Young Author Prize