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Karel Brookhuis appointed Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion

24 April 2020
Prof.dr. Karel Brookhuis
Prof.dr. Karel Brookhuis

On 24 April, Prof. Karel Brookhuis was appointed Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion. Brookhuis (Enschede, 1950) is currently an honorary Professor of Traffic Psychology in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the UG. Until 2018, he was also a Professor of Transport, Policy and Logistics Organisation in the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management at TU Delft. His specialized brain research and innovative measuring methods earned him a reputation as the international figurehead of traffic psychology in the Netherlands. His research always focused on reducing traffic accidents, increasing road safety and solving the problem of congestion.

Authoritative pioneer in the field of traffic safety

Since the start of his academic career at the UG in 1980, Brookhuis has carried out authoritative pioneering work in the field of traffic safety, ultimately resulting in an inimitable international reputation. His field covers the psychology of traffic and transport, sometimes crossing over into both behavioural sciences and engineering sciences. He has a total of 123 publications to his name and over 3,000 citations. In the 1980s, he conducted highly innovative research into people’s driving habits by registering their brain activity. Drivers were asked to go for a drive on the public highway in a car that had been fitted with special instruments. They were accompanied by a driving instructor for safety reasons, and as the head of the experiment, Brookhuis noted his observations from the back seat. This research generated new information about the effects of fatigue and certain medications on driving behaviour. Using simulation tests, he also studied the effects of drug use on driving behaviour.

International method for measuring driving behaviour

Brookhuis developed a test that is now used around the world to ascertain people’s driving behaviour: it is called the car following task. Drivers are told to follow the car in front of them at a safe distance, while the car in front varies its speed according to a set pattern. He also used his car following method to measure the effects of using a car phone while driving in the late 1980s. In addition, he published a prominent article in which he shows huge variations in people’s behaviour, and concludes that the systems in a car must be aligned with individual users and not with groups. Older drivers, for example, respond differently when following directions than younger drivers.

Building bridges between engineers and behavioural scientists

In 2001, Brookhuis was made a professor at TU Delft, where he had unprecedented success in building bridges between engineers and behavioural scientists. He showed engineers that human behaviour can be a decisive factor in whether an innovation will succeed or fail, both in terms of the introduction of new technologies and in predictions based on models. He proved that technological innovations would never achieve 100% of the safety effect, because people adapt their behaviour in line with the innovation. For example, drivers of cars with winter tyres feel safer, so they tend to brake later. He also showed that drivers like to drive ‘on the edge’: if a system gives feedback about speed in relation to the speed limit, many drivers feel the urge to drive as close to the limit as possible, over even slightly over it. These effects are tremendously important in terms of improving road safety.

Enormous commitment as an administrator

In addition to his research, Brookhuis was an enthusiastic administrator. At the turn of the century, when the importance of his field was still seriously underestimated, he managed to keep the Traffic Psychology programme at the UG. His efforts resulted in increased appreciation of this discipline. He was also an important figure at the TRAIL research institute, where he taught students. TRAIL stands for Transport, Infrastructure and Logistics and is a partnership of six Dutch universities, including TU Delft and the University of Groningen. His arrival vastly increased the degree of collaboration in the field of traffic. His psychological knowledge of traffic technology and logistic models was invaluable in this respect; he never shied away from stressing that human behaviour is not always predictable, essential knowledge when considering issues such as automatic driving.

Inspirational, impassioned lecturer

Brookhuis also has a commendable record as a lecturer and supervisor of PhD students. He has given support and inspiration for his field to many students and novice researchers. His support and advice have led to numerous high-quality theses. He has trained countless Human Factor specialists, who now work to improve traffic safety and reduce the number of deaths and injuries on our roads. For many years, he held various positions within the international Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Europe Chapter network, in which he often introduced innovative topics and paid extra attention to up-and-coming researchers. His colleagues, students and PhD candidates praise his hard work and his relentless support for people, the way he backs up his staff and always goes a step further than expected. At the same time, he is renowned for his modesty and his inspiring, friendly attitude to life.

Active into his retirement

Brookhuis has also worked hard outside his professional field. He never says no when asked, which is why he remained in his position as Director of Education for Psychology much longer than usually required. Despite reaching retirement age in late 2018, he agreed to stay on as interim head of the Department of Neuropsychology due to the unrest in the department at the time. Since 2018, he has also been Programme Director of Psychology at University College Groningen and fulfilled various advisory roles, including on the academic advisory board of the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research.

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Last modified:24 April 2020 2.45 p.m.
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