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Strategic Planning Document - Transportation R&D

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Human Performance in the Transportation System


People, acting as designers, operators, crew, or customer/users, are an integral part of transportation systems. Decisions they make, and the performance patterns they exhibit as individuals and as part of organizations significantly affect the overall productivity and operational safety of transportation systems. Behavioral science provides the methodology to examine systematically the decision-making process and performance capability and reliability. A broadly based proactive transportation behavioral science research program provides results, data and methodologies useful to the regulatory and operational requirements of all levels of government. It also supports the operational efficiency and competitiveness of the private sector in the global transportation community. Of critical importance is the improvement of human performance in transportation systems and the resulting effect on safety, environmental protection, and productivity.

Human error is the principal cause of 60-90% of transportation accidents. Progress in reducing transportation fatalities, injuries and property losses is clearly tied to obtaining a better understanding of the root causes of human error and developing appropriate mediating mechanisms that address the individual and how humans function in organizations and with different relationships, training and motivation.

Successful adoption of advanced technologies requires that people be able to successfully use and interact with new technologies. Technological advances raise new questions about people's ability to understand and operate equipment, while simultaneously coping with increased complexity in system operations. Concern for operator and user needs and capabilities must be included in designs for new technologies to ensure their success. Technological developments will be successful if they can be understood, are user-friendly and can be safely operated.

Reduction of transportation fatalities, injuries, and property losses will depend on identifying and removing the causes of human errors or compensating for them. Many research opportunities remain that hold the promise of markedly safer and more productive transportation systems.


The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable causes of the grounding of the EXXON VALDEZ were: failure of the third mate to properly maneuver the vessel because of fatigue and excessive workload; the failure of the master to provide a proper navigation watch because of impairment from alcohol; the failure of Exxon Shipping Company to provide a fit master and a rested and sufficient crew for the EXXON VALDEZ; the lack of effective Vessel Traffic Service because of inadequate equipment and manning levels, inadequate personnel training, and deficient management oversight; and the lack of effective pilotage services.

In response to the grounding of the US Tank ship Exxon Valdez, the US Coast Guard and MARAD are using human factors research to improve maritime safety. The goal of this work is to find out how the regulatory, guidance and enforcement activities of the Coast Guard and the industry can improve the safety and competitiveness of maritime operations and to propose specific solutions. Human factors research underway now will provide more effective ways to enhance safety and productivity by:

  • Recommending ways to mitigate the negative effect of sleep disruptions on crew members.
  • Designating which on-board tasks should and should not be automated.
  • Determining how reduced manning levels can impact on-board emergency response capability.
  • Designing improved nautical charts, displays and alarms.
  • Improving communication between ship personnel and/or between ship personnel and the Vessel Traffic Service (VTS).
  • Teaching crew members how to share work tasks and responsibilities more effectively to make better use of crew resources and reduce misunderstandings using Bridge Resource Management skills.
  • Using risk assessment techniques to determine the role of human error in the design, construction, reliability, and safety of marine structures.

It is expected that as advanced wide area navigation technologies such as Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) become more widely available they will provide VTS facilities with real-time information about activity in congested waters not visible on radar. The Coast Guard and MARAD will need to figure out the safest and most effective ways to design, locate and operate equipment to display this information to shore stations and mariners . These current and anticipated efforts are part of MARAD's and US Coast Guard's integrated plan for safety and human factors work which is designed. to reduce the likelihood of this kind of disaster happening again.

Key Finding

Research in human factors and behavioral sciences is a critical aspect of building the needed transportation knowledge base, improving operational efficiency, and increasing overall productivity. Areas in which better understanding of human performance and behavior is needed include:

  • Identification and prevention of fatigue and loss-of-alertness;
  • Identification of optimized work-sleep cycles for commercial operators;
  • Design of user-friendly working environments;
  • Development of strategies for dealing with drug and alcohol use;
  • Design of artificial intelligence systems to enable error-free, rapid responses to emergencies;
  • Development of methods to test commercial operators for readiness/fitness for operational duty;
  • Development of operating procedures which facilitate effective interactions between and among crews and right-of-way controllers, and;
  • Development of optimized crew resource management schemes.

Major Program Objectives

Major program objectives for research in human performance and behavioral sciences in transportation systems are to:

  • Ensure that human performance capabilities and limitations are reflected in transportation system designs and operational timetables and structures.

  • Ensure that transportation system designs incorporating new advanced information/communications technologies consider user/customer needs and preferences.

  • Foster the development of transportation products and systems that incorporate user interfaces which promote safe, efficient, productive operations, and which are user/worker friendly.

  • Increase the competitiveness of US transportation products in world markets by making them understandable and easy to use by a wide and diverse population of users/operators.

Challenges and New Opportunities

Cooperation between and among Federal agencies responsible for transportation human factors and behavioral sciences research is common. However, fundamental cross-cutting research needs are unmet because of lack of funding support and an existing institutional framework that militates against this type of work.

Examples include:

  • Development of optimized ways of incorporating automation into transportation systems that minimize errors, overcome sensory and cognitive limitations, and improve performance and efficiency.

  • Application of human performance assessment methodologies more broadly across all transportation modes and operations.

  • Development of generic human performance measurement tools, and data archives, that can used for multiple purposes by multiple users.

  • Development of analytical models which reflect the effects of individual and group choices and actions/performances on transportation system functioning and efficiency.

  • Development of optimization guidelines for the timely and effective aggregation and display of information to system users and operators.

  • Development of data bases characterizing the distribution of performance capabilities and limitations, as well as behavior/choice patterns, of the diverse range of system users/operators that interface with transportation systems now and in the future.

  • Defining the type of information customers need, and ways of gathering and presenting it, to make intermodal transportation seamless and readily accessed.

  • Development of analytical models of operator performance that can be used as benchmarks for improving individuals' capability to safely and efficiently operate transportation vehicles/equipment.

Accomplishing this work goes beyond the core responsibilities of any single Federal, state, or local transportation agency, but holds the potential for:

  • Strengthening US Competitiveness - by developing optimized systems which account to human capabilities and limitations as they relate to automation in transportation system designs and operations.

  • Improving and Extending the Mobility of Americans - by incorporating practical applications of new information and display technologies. The extent to which US industry makes effective use of modern information technology is central to the competitiveness of transportation-related products and services. There is a need for basic knowledge on human processing as well as documentation of the differential effects of impairments.

  • Fundamental information describing the baseline performance capabilities and limitation of the general population of transportation operators and users, particularly the elderly and the physically challenged, is essential to the design of transportation systems.

  • Increasing the Safety of the US Transportation System - by developing comprehensive analytical models of how vehicle operators function, in terms of sensory, cognitive, and physical characteristics would derive substantial benefits.

III. Conclusion

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Transportation R&D - Table of Contents


Executive Summary

I. Overview

II. Summary

II. Summary - continued

II. Summary - continued

III. Conclusion


Strategic Planning Document - Transportation R&D

Department of Transportation