Strategic Planning Document - Transportation R&D

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:

Major Program Objectives

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

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:

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

III. Conclusion

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

President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House | White House for Kids
White House History | White House Tours | Help
Privacy Statement


Site Map

Graphic Version

T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E