Q&A With Professor Peter Loeb

Lawrence Lerner

Rutgers-Newark Economics Professor Peter Loeb has been a member of the NCAS faculty since 1973. A specialist in applied econometrics and transportation safety, he has testified before the New Jersey state legislature and U.S. Congress on some of the most pressing transportation-safety issues of our time, including car inspections, seatbelt use, and the influence of alcohol and cell-phone use on drivers.

Loeb is also a past president and current board member of the Transportation and Public Utilities Group, an international scholarly group that meets with the American Economic Association.

For his years of service to Rutgers-Newark, Loeb was recently awarded the 2013 Rutgers Teacher/Scholar Award by Rutgers University President Robert L. Barchi. The award honors faculty members who have done an outstanding job integrating their teaching with their research. By bringing together scholarly and classroom activities, recipients of this award are models of how scholarship and love of learning can be transmitted to students.

We sat down with Professor Loeb recently to discuss his connection to Rutgers, his work, and the significance of this latest award.


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You have a very deep connection to Rutgers, don’t you.
That’s right. I got a B.A. in economics from Rutgers-Newark (NCAS ’67), then my Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers-New Brunswick in 1973. It was during that year that I returned to NCAS to be on the faculty here.

So, we’re talking nearly 50 years, or most of your adult life.

Your specialty, econometrics, uses mathematics and statistics to help make sense of economic data—for forecasting and policy evaluation. What inspired you to apply this to transportation-safety issues?
In the late ’70s, NJIT got a grant from the State of New Jersey to help redesign auto-inspection stations. It turns out that the pass-through rate at outdoor stations was significantly higher than at enclosed, or indoor, stations. We needed to figure out why that was, and how effective inspections were at reducing accidents and fatalities.

And what was your role?
I did a statistical model and discovered that inspections did save lives initially, though later that finding changed as the age of the fleet changed. I found the statistical modeling and the public-health angle very interesting, and testified before Congress and the New Jersey state legislature on the issue. Then I got into other things, like seatbelts, the influence of alcohol, speed and speed variance, and cell phones. All of these seem like common sense with regard to transportation safety, but they’re not. I’m now looking at motorcycle accidents and fatalities, and the effects of suicide on accidents.

Can you tell us about the Transportation and Public Utilities group, and your work with that organization?
It’s an international group of scholars who are devoted to research in transportation and utilities, though not necessarily safety. It consists mostly of economists, engineers, and public-health people from Europe, Asia and the U.S., though other disciplines and countries are represented as well. There are Nobel Prize–winners among us, and we share our research at conferences of the Allied Social Science Association and the American Economic Association.

The Rutgers Scholar-Teacher Award honors faculty members who done an outstanding job integrating their teaching with their research. How have you done this?
I teach undergraduate statistics and econometrics, and a graduate seminar in applied economics. I direct some of my classes to transportation safety and have students do a technical research paper. They come in terrified because they’re on their own—though not really—and halfway through they’re excited, and three-quarters through they’re very, very excited by how far they’ve come. I tell them they can use those papers to apply for jobs in industry. I prep them for interviews and encourage them to tell employers about their research. Many have successfully gotten jobs this way.  I’m passionate about this, about helping students, and spend a lot of time putting together my lectures.

You also have your students read unlikely texts to help them understand crucial concepts and become better writers. And you endeavor to broaden their take on math?
Yes. I have Loeb’s “Book of the Week.” For instance, I assign Lucretius and ask them, “What’s this have to do with probability or the nature of the universe?” Or Machiavelli’s The Prince, which is heavy on probability without seeming so. Or Walter Isaacson’s book on Einstein. Or Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism to test the theory of “the best of all possible worlds.” We also speak about equations, since most students are afraid of math. Many of them had calculus but don’t see the beauty of it. I show them how equations show a picture or tell a story, and try to open up the possibilities for them.

What does it mean to you to receive this award?
I’m a little bit awed by it, and very pleased to have been nominated and have won. It’s a nice pat on the back—nice to be recognized by the university for things I’m passionate about.

Thank you for speaking with us.
My pleasure.