Drunk Driving…Continues to be a Major Concern

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

from: White & Associates Law, MN

A bold new report leads with that statement and recommends a multi-faceted, comprehensive approach to eliminating drunk-driving related deaths. The report comes from the Committee on Accelerating Progress to Reduce Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities, a committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to address this topic. The committee supports the concept of Vision Zero, stating in their report that “no alcohol-impaired driving deaths are acceptable, and that every stakeholder has a role in preventing these deaths.”

“Alcohol-impaired driving remains the deadliest and costliest danger on U.S. roads today.  Every day in the U.S., 29 people die in an alcohol-impaired driving crash – one death every 49 minutes – making it a persistent public health and safety problem.”

The report documents how, beginning in the 1980s, steps were taken to reduce drunk driving and to educate the public about its dangers. Such steps included new laws making it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level above a certain level. These approaches lead to a decrease in drunk driving-related fatalities for two decades, but now the decline in these fatalities has plateaued. It is clear that a new approach is needed for progress to continue.

The committee created a conceptual framework to show the sequence of behaviors that can lead to an alcohol-impaired driving fatality, potential interventions for this behavior, and important factors that impact outcomes. The interventions would interact with each other at multiple levels, including “individual, interpersonal, institutional, community, and societal.”

The interventions fall into four primary categories:

  • Interventions to reduce drinking to impairment, such as limiting alcohol availability and marketing, especially for under-age drinkers
  • Interventions to reduce driving while impaired, including: creating viable, affordable, safe transportation alternatives for drinkers who may drive; strongly enforcing drunk driving laws; and promoting the use in-vehicle technologies that can restrict drivers with over a threshold BAC level from being able to start their vehicle.
  • Post-arrest and post-crash interventions, such as health care programs for preventing, evaluating, and treating alcohol dependency; and increased support both for first-time driving under the influence (DUI) offenders as well as habitual offenders to modify these behaviors.
  • Data and surveillance systems, including: expanding and standardizing data collection on alcohol-impaired related crashes, arrests, and convictions, long-term outcomes, and why people drive while impaired; and integrating the collected data sets for research, evaluation, and data-sharing purposes.

 Massachusetts has a history of addressing the issue of alcohol-impaired driving using education and enforcement with the coordination of multiple agencies. Each year for example, the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security leads the Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over enforcement and education effort over the December-New Year holiday season.  This effort includes high visibility police patrols and impaired driving enforcement at high crash locations across the state. One result of Massachusetts’ efforts is that the rate of alcohol-impaired traffic deaths in Massachusetts is consistently among the lowest in the nation. Moreover, the rate of alcohol-related driving deaths in Massachusetts has fallen approximately 20 percent since 2007. However, as with the national trends, the decrease in these deaths in Massachusetts has slowed in recent years, and between 2015 and 2016, there was actually a small increase from 109 to 119 people killed statewide in alcohol-related crashes.

New Federal Committee on Motorcycle Safety Holds First Meeting

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow


Last month, the Motorcycle Advisory Committee (MAC) held its initial meeting in Arlington, VA. This federal committee was created to advise the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on motorcycle safety and to identify engineering-related infrastructure solutions for reducing motorcyclist fatalities.

There were 5,286 roadway fatalities nationally involving motorcycles in 2016, an increase of 5% from the previous year. In Massachusetts, 40 motorcyclist fatalities were reported during the same year.

As described on transportation.gov, “the MAC consists of ten members selected by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao. [The members] come from across the country and are experts in a wide range of motorcycle-infrastructure topics. Each is a motorcyclist and, combined, the MAC members have over two centuries of riding experience.”

At the first MAC meeting, there were substantial discussions on many infrastructure issues, including work zones, roundabouts, roadside hardware, roadway maintenance practices, the potential consequences of automated vehicles and crash testing, among others. At upcoming meetings, the MAC will determine how to advise FHWA on these issues. For its part, FHWA has research underway to identify key infrastructure-based safety issues for motorcyclists. The centerpiece of this work is the FHWA’s Motorcycle Crash Causation Study. According to the study web site, “The Motorcycle Crash Causation Study is the most comprehensive data collection effort to study the causes of U.S. motorcycle crashes in more than 30 years. The dataset includes data from at least 351 crash investigations, and 702 control rider interviews.”

A couple of current safety features on motorcycles to prevent future fatalities include: new breaking lights and the required anti-lock brake feature. The break light feature is the first wearable brake light connected to a smart phone app.  The anti-lock brake feature has been an option on motorcycles for years, but it may soon become a requirement based on the safety advantages.

In addition to technology and infrastructure improvements for motorcycle safety, some changes in how motorcyclists are trained may be warranted as well. Researchers at UMass-Amherst, led by now Ph.D. graduate Jeffrey Muttart, have conducted field studies on motorcyclist eye glance and driving behavior, including studies where participants went through the same on-road course as car drivers and as motorcyclists. Key findings in one study were that motorcyclists were less likely to come to a complete stop at a stop sign than car drivers, and that study participants made later final glances toward the direction of the most threatening traffic before they made a turn when they were driving a car than when they were riding a motorcycle.

Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon Devices Rescinded

by: Matt Mann, Research Program Coordinator

A Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon (RRFB). Source: Carol Kachadoorian (2012)

Many Massachusetts towns and educational institutions, like UMass Amherst, have installed Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB) devices at crosswalks, to alert drivers of a pedestrian crossing. This will be changing in the future. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) prohibits patented devices from experimentation, Interim Approval (IA), or inclusion in the MUTCD. Based on an Interim Approval, in June 2008, for this device, the US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Division recently rescinded all new RRFB devices. Existing devices, already installed, can remain in-place for their useful life.  Additional information will be forth coming.  Please contact FHWA Massachusetts division office for guidance.

New Year, New UMass Human Performance Lab Web Site

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

Photo Source: Shannon Roberts, Human Performance Lab, UMass Amherst

The Human Performance Lab (HPL) based at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has a brand new look! The HPL was originally created by Professor Donald Fisher in the 1990s and is world-renowned for its work on teen driver training. In 2016, the University of Massachusetts Transportation Center (UMTC) Affiliate Researcher Professor Shannon Roberts joined the HPL and now serves as the HPL co-director, overseeing research activities of the lab and day-to-day operations. Professor Roberts’ research is focused on driver feedback, in-vehicle interface design, automated vehicles, and teen/novice drivers. Her research group’s web site has information on her team and other interests.

With Dr. Robert’s arrival, the lab underwent significant changes. Upgrades include a new vehicle (2015 Ford Fusion), five new projectors with an expanded field of view of 330 degrees, new channels for displaying the side and rear-view mirrors and a new in-vehicle display.  The HPL has also obtained other new equipment including Virtual Reality (VR) headsets for delivering training and using with simulations, and a new heart-rate monitor to use with participants in lab studies.  Coming soon will be an instrumented vehicle for use with on-road studies.  The upgraded equipment will significantly expand the lab’s research capabilities.  One recent new area of research for the lab involves autonomous vehicles.  This is the transfer of driving control from driver to vehicle, and drivers’ awareness of their surroundings and ability to respond to potential roadway hazards as they switch from autonomous modes that require more attention and input from the driver, to those that require less attention.

As it has since its beginning, the lab, based in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, continues to collaborate with other departments at UMass-Amherst including Civil Engineering, the UMTC, Computer Science, Electric and Computer Engineering, and Psychology.

Where is my Snowplow? Snowplow Apps and Cams Comfort Drivers

by Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

Minnesota DOT

When snowy weather comes, drivers want to know which roads have been plowed and what the road conditions are.  A number of state Departments of Transportation (DOT) are now providing the public access to the real-time data that the DOTs collect on roads and plows.  Some states even have snowplow dashboard cameras so people can watch the plows at work and see the roads as the plow drivers see them.

The Iowa DOT’s Track a Plow program started in 2013. Track a Plow lets anyone with Internet access see where plows are operating, and view photos taken from cameras attached to plow windshields.  As described on the Iowa DOT web site, “the data and images coming from the snowplow trucks are part of a larger data collection process that includes global positioning satellite and advanced vehicle location technology to help the Iowa DOT make smarter decisions related to treating Iowa’s roadways. Eric Abrams, the Iowa DOT’s geographic information systems (GIS) coordinator, developed the architecture behind the public website. ‘Our snowplow trucks are now equipped to collect a wealth of information. Some of it is more useful to managers and supervisors at the DOT and some of it helps everyone. We’ve made the data available in a variety of layers on the track a plow site so people can pick and choose what they want to see. So far, the camera layer has been the most popular with the public.’”

The Michigan DOT (MDOT) piloted its snowplow tracking program for the past few winters and has now expanded it statewide. The department’s Mi Drive website and app for traffic conditions lets people see where MDOT snowplows are and also whether they are actively plowing or applying ice melting materials. Some of the plows also have webcams which can be viewed through Mi Drive. As the MLive newsite reported, “MDOT has long allowed access to traffic cameras and images, but this new feature will show the havoc of Michigan’s winter with a first-person (vehicle) view.”  Information on the web site and app is updated every 60-90 seconds. According to MDOT, the Mi Drive app version is especially popular with motorists as it is faster and easier to use than the web site and allows more customization.

The Minnesota DOT (MNDOT) pilot tested snowplow cams for the first time last year and put them on about 200 plows (25% of the MNDOT fleet). A short video on this MNDOT initiative can be seen here.  The snowplow info shared with the public by MNDOT is part of the Minnesota’s 511 road information system (511mn.org).

Other state DOTs do not have web cams on their snowplows yet but still share weather and snowplow data online, and give the public access to some of their GIS data layers used by staff. The Pennsylvania DOT shares snowplow locations through its 511pa.com site. The Utah DOT (UDOT) includes a snowplow layer in its real-time UDOT Traffic web site and smartphone app. This website and app gives plow locations and shows where the plows have traveled in the last 30 minutes (the data is updated every 3-5 minutes). Last winter, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) launched its Find My Plow site which helps motorists see where plows have been, and when the next plow is coming, so they can plan their driving trips accordingly.


Traffic Apps Impact on Neighborhoods and Safety

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

Photo by Noe Veloso Fremont, CA Public Works Department

Smart phone apps, such as Waze and Google Maps, help drivers find the quickest routes to their destinations using real-time traffic data.  Sometimes this means that drivers are being directed off congested highways to streets through residential neighborhoods instead. Not everyone is happy about this, including traffic planners and people living in these neighborhoods who don’t want higher volumes of traffic on their streets.

News media have reported these impacts of traffic apps on Cape Cod neighborhoods, and in the Boston area.  Quoting Police Sergeant Charles Hartnett, head of Medford’s traffic division, in one news report: “For the residents, it’s a safety issue.”  Some communities are responding by restricting a cut-through and turning movements into residential neighborhoods during commuting hours when the traffic is heaviest.  In some places, certain streets are being changed to one-way roads as another means to divert traffic.  When such changes are made, transportation planners often share these updates with the app companies so that their maps and algorithms can be adjusted accordingly.

The traffic apps can also present a challenge to safety officials in emergency situations.  For example, in the Los Angeles area, while officials were busy fighting wildfires, they implored residents to ignore the apps that were directing them to lightly traveled roads in the fire zones, and put up message signs telling drivers “Don’t Trust Your Apps.” As described in this USA Today article, the fires and evacuation orders were the reason the traffic volumes is these areas were so low.  In Vermont, the shortest way isn’t always the safest way.  Cars have been abandoned because the driver followed Google maps, only to end up on a road that was not maintained in the winter.

Do You Trust Vehicles To Do The Driving?

by Courtney Murtagh and Melissa Paciulli, Manager of Research

While Boston is positioned to become a hub for autonomous vehicles, buy-in from the public, remains a potential hurdle.   New research based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), indicated that people aren’t so sure about self-driving cars.  The study surveyed 3,000 Bostonians of different ages. Half of those interviewed, said they would never buy a self-driving car due to safety, and citing that they did not trust technology.

Researchers at UMass Amherst are studying driver trust to determine how technology impacts human behavior.  Foroogh Hajiseyedjavadi, a PhD Candidate in the Transportation Engineering program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was interviewed this past week about her research.

“Inappropriate level of trust in the technology, whether it is over trust or under-trust, would negatively affect the benefits of that technology,” said Hajiseyedjavadi.

Hajiseyedjavadi is evaluating drivers’ trust in automated vehicles and believes that understanding peoples trust in automated vehicles will help enhance human automation interaction models.

“Automated driving is expected to enhance traffic safety and flow,” said Hajiseyedjavadi in her executive summary. “The system will not be as effective if users do not accept it or do not utilize it appropriately.”

Hajiseyedjavadi’s research is in two phases; the first phase being a 68 question survey distributed to participants online with questions that include general demographics, their driving history, and questions about their psychological and personal traits. This phase also addressed a persons’ previous experiences with automated systems, like ATM’s and vending machines, and their experience with computers.“The hope is that the results of this part will give some basic understanding of the level of trust consumers have even before experiencing the technology,” said Hajiseyedjavadi.

The second phase of the research was conducted in the Arbella Human Performance Lab at UMass Amherst, on a driving simulator which included simulation of autonomous controls within the vehicle. Hajiseyedjavadi and her team recruited 80 people to participate in the study and programmed different driving scenarios.

During the simulated drives, there were different levels of automation and functionality that the driver would experience. Either the driver would get an autonomous driving system that worked fine, or the driver would get an autonomous vehicle with a 12 percent or even a 25 percent failure rate.

“We have never scripted a crash. The 12 and 25 percent failure comes when the autonomous vehicle sensors fail. This occurs at either a pedestrian crossing or an intersection. For these failures, it is up to the driver to correct the mistake,” said Hajiseyedjavadi.

Sensors are set up during the simulation that measure the vehicles speed, lane keeping, acceleration, and deceleration. Another set of data is the physiological data of the subject. The driver wears a heart rate and variability sensor. There are also two sets of video cameras showing the hand movements on the steering wheel and the foot petals. This is to see when drivers are engaging in the system.

After the simulations the team would ask the participants to complete a second questionnaire about their level of trust while driving and their mental workload.

“All this data combined is hopefully going to give us a better understanding of the level or trust and how people are interacting with the vehicle,” said Hajiseyedjavadi.

“Trust is one of those things that control people’s use of the system,” continued Hajiseyedjavadi citing why this study is so important.

She said in order to improve drivers’ trust in automated vehicles, scientist need to improve the level of reliability of the system.

Communicating and teaching drivers how to use the technology is also essential, according to Hajiseyedjavadi.

“We are definitely going to see automated driving cars in the future,” said Hajiseyedjavadi. “I don’t know exactly how many years but we are definitely going to have them soon.”


Safety First! Are You a Distracted Driver or a Distracted Pedestrian?

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

The annual number of pedestrians hit and killed by vehicles in the United States is now at its highest level in more than 20 years. In March 2017, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released a report showing an 11 percent increase rise in the number of pedestrian deaths between 2015 and 2016, and a 25 percent increase in these deaths over the past five years. The report estimates there were almost 6,000 pedestrian fatalities in 2016 and pedestrians now account for 15 percent of all traffic deaths. The rise in pedestrian fatalities from 2015 to 2016 was the highest annual increase in both the total number and percentage growth in the 40 years that these national data have been recorded.

The GHSA figures are calculated based on pedestrian fatalities for January to June 2016 and then extrapolated for the rest of the year. For this six-month period, 2,660 pedestrians died in traffic crashes nationwide.

Source: Seattle Tim

Four states accounted for 43 percent of these fatalities: California (405 pedestrian deaths); Florida (277); Texas (242); and NewYork (137). Massachusetts had 38 pedestrian deaths in this time frame( 1.4 percent of the total).

The GHSA identified several factors that could be contributing to the rise in pedestrian deaths, including the following.

  • More driving. People are driving more now, with the economy improving and gas prices down from their historic high levels ($4+/gallon) earlier this decade. Federal Highway Administration data released in February 2017 show that in 2016, people in cars, minivans, SUVs, and trucks drove a record 3.22 trillion miles on the nation’s roads and highways. This is an increase of 3 percent over 2015, and the fifth straight year of increased total mileage.
  • Alcohol. According to the GHSA report, 15 percent of pedestrian taffic deaths involve a drunk driver, and 34 percent of the pedestrians killed in traffic accidents themselves have blood alcohol levels above the legal limit of 0.08.
  • Lack of pedestrian visibility. Many of the pedestrian fatalities occurred in conditions where the pedestrians may not be very visible to drivers. The GHSA found that 74 percent of pedestrian deaths occurred at night, and 72 percent of those killed were not at a roadway intersection.
  • In recent years, as cell phones and other portable communication and entertainment devices have become more ubiquitous, there has been an increase in crashes and injuries attributed to distraction. Drive distraction is considered one of the top three causes of traffic fatalities in general—the other top causes are alcohol and vehicle speed—and one of three main causes for pedestrian fatalities. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that driver distraction contributed to 3,477 traffic crash-related deaths and 391,000 injuries in 2015. As discussed in a recent National Public Radio piece, there are also concerns about the impact of pedestrians’ own distractions on pedestrian safety

A comprehensive research literature review on the impact of electronic device use on pedestrian safety was conducted by Robert Scopatz and Yuying Zhou (2016). The literature review was part of a larger research project examining whether electronic device use by drivers and pedestrians significantly affects pedestrian safety. The literature review included sections on distracted pedestrians, distracted drivers, and pedestrian-driver interactions, and examined real-world studies, simulator studies, and other collected data in these three areas. There have been no studies thus far showing a direct cause-and-effect link between distraction and pedestrian crash risk. Nonetheless, there is clear evidence that distracted drivers face increased crash risks and that distraction impacts how pedestrians walk, react, and behave, including safety-related behaviors

Scopatz and Zhou found only one study (Brumfield and Pulugurtha, 2011) to date that examined pedestrian-vehicle conflicts and the role of distraction due to handheld electronic device use. That study’s researchers observed 325 pedestrian-vehicle interactions at seven midblock crosswalks on a university campus in Charlotte, North Carolina. They found that 29 percent of pedestrians and 18 percent of drivers were noticeably distracted (talking on a cell phone or texting) at the time the pedestrian and vehicle were nearing the crosswalk. Further, the researchers calculated that distracted drivers were more than three times more likely to be involved in a conflict at the midblock crosswalks than distracted pedestrians. Government legislators in Montreal, Quebec, and New Jersey have proposed banning cell phone texting for pedestrians while they are crossing the street. These proposals have not received much support thus far.

Research is needed to dig deeper into the issues around pedestrian fatalities with specific focus on distraction.

Some key questions remain:

  • How distractions (for drivers and pedestrians) exacerbated by hazards that are already present?
  • With the encouragement of Bicycling and Pedestrian activity for healthy communities, how will this impact the grown problem?
  • What type of solutions are States considering for solutions? One recent report published in March of 2017,  Consensus Recommendations for Pedestrian Injury Surveillance aims to offer guidance in tracking, recording and prevention.

Affiliate Researcher, Karin Goins, UMass Medical, provided input for this article. 


‘Look Mom, no hands….’ TRANSFER CONTROL TO YOUR CAR? Not that far off in the future

lookmanohandsIn the fall of 2016, the US Department of Transportation announced new policies and initiatives for autonomous vehicles (AV) and AV research. The new Federal Automated Vehicles Policy is based on the US DOT’s view that  automated, autonomous vehicles can help promote safety, mobility, sustainability. With the increase use of AVs and semi-autonomous vehicles, there are some potential safety concerns as well, including relating to the ability of people using such vehicles to respond to potential hazards and potentially hazardous situations.

Siby Samuel, PhD, a UMTC Research Affiliate in Industrial Engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and colleagues, including Shlomo Zilberstein in the Computer Science Department, have been studying the topic of semi-autonomous vehicles and safety for a number of years. Their research has focused on situations where the control of driving transfers to the vehicle in uncomplicated driving environments (such as a limited access highway), but where drivers still need to be prepared to take back control of the vehicle  to address potential hazards that arise.  This level of driving automation is known as Level 3 automation. Zilberstein and two of his graduate assistants, Kyle Wray and Luis Pineda, are researching how to transfer control “quickly, safely and smoothly back and forth” between the system and the person operating it. All of these studies were conducted on UMass’s Advanced Driving Simulator ( http://www.ecs.umass.edu/hpl/ ).

“The real trend in artificial intelligence is to build systems that can collaborate with people,” Zilberstein said. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

At the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting in January 2017 Dr. Samuel’s team presented two recent studies on Level 3 driving automation and the time it takes for drivers to be able to respond to potential hazards when the driving control of the vehicle needs to switch from the automated system to the driver.

An earlier study by Samuel and Zilberstein also looked at this transfer of control on the driving simulator.  Participants were instructed to transfer control to automation upon hearing an audio alert “transfer control”, and then later they were told with another audio alert “take over control” when they were to resume manual control of the vehicle. During the automated driving phase, participants were instructed to do tasks on a computer tablet. This study found that the minimum transfer of control altering time required for drivers in a Level 3 driving environment to respond to a potential hazard was 8 seconds when the hazard was expected, when the roadway environment was not changing during the transfer of control process, and when they were doing tasks on a computer tablet during the automation part of the drive. In other words, it took 8 seconds for these drivers to anticipate hazards at a rate equivalent to that of drivers who were manually driving their vehicles and weren’t distracted with in-vehicle tasks.   In one study presented at this year’s TRB meeting, Samuel and colleagues found that more informative audio alerts, for example a message telling a participant about at at-grade rail crossing or a lane reduction ahead could reduce the needed time for participants to respond to a potential hazard by as much as 40% or 4 seconds.

UMass Affiliate Researchers make headlines on driverless cars:
http://www.gazettenet.com/University-of-Massachusetts-researchers-study-how-to-make-self-driving-cars-safer-3711488 (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Written by Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

Simulator Evaluation of the Effectiveness of an Comprehensive Teen Driver Training Program

Novice teen drivers are over represented in crashes, particularly rear end, intersection and run- off-the-road crashes. Their over involvement in these crashes appears to be due to six poorly developed skills: tactical and strategic hazard anticipation, tactical and strategic hazard mitigation, and tactical and strategic attention maintenance. Previous studies had determined that a single skill could be taught in a 45 minute training session. The question addressed here was whether all six possible skills could be taught in a two hour session without reducing the effectiveness of the training of the individual skills. Specifically, the current study examines the development and evaluation on a driving simulator of a training program, ACCEL (Accelerated Curriculum to Create Effective Learning), that is designed to decrease the time it takes teens to become safer drivers over the first 18 months of independent driving by targeting for training the above six behaviors in the most risky crash scenarios. During the evaluation, eye movements were recorded and vehicle measures were collected for a total of 75 novice drivers (16 to 18 14 years with less than 6 months’ experience), of which fifty were ACCEL-trained and 25 were Placebo-trained, and 25 experienced drivers (28 to 55 with at least 10 years’ experience), all untrained. ACCEL training was found to significantly improve the performance of novice drivers in 5 out of the 6 of the trained skills when compared to Placebo trained teens: tactical and strategic hazard anticipation, tactical hazard mitigation, and tactical and strategic attention maintenance. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that combined skill training can be deliver effectively in a relatively short amount of time.