A high-profile race-car crash this weekend left a big-name NASCAR driver only slightly injured. The professional racers, as well as the everyday motorists on streets and highways, owe some of their safety to a team of engineers at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. Professor Dean Sikking is a civil engineer and director of the institute.Sikking says though they’ve worked for 24 years on highway safety, in recent years the facility’s won fame for working on NASCAR and Indy-League racetrack safety features like SAFER — the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction System. It’s being installed at all the nation’s NASCAR tracks and should be done by the 2005 racing season. But the professor says many of the crash-proofing designs the research center comes up with will make drivers safer on Interstate-80. The group’s worked with transportation departments in California and Texas and federal officials in Washington to reduce the deaths from crashes that involve median barriers on highways. To do that, Sikking and his team of engineers studied crash reports. After investigating “hundreds and hundreds” of crashes, he says it’s clear when one driver crosses the median they’re most at risk, as they’re more likely to get hit on the driver’s or passenger’s side door, and that’s more dangerous than a head-on collision. Sikking says you can thank improved highway design for the two-thirds drop in fatalities and in serious crash injuries over the past three decades. The federal department of transportation’s set a goal to reduce them by another third over the next five years, he says it’s an ambitious but achievable goal. The biggest factor, he says, is rebuilding highways with safer roadside design. There are highway safety programs at Texas and Penn State but the University of Nebraska’s center is the national leader and Sikking says this may be the premier center in the world.