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.

Safety in the Zone: the Work Zone

by Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

On the evening of September 30, 2017, a road construction worker in Ohio, Steve Cook, age 59, was hit and killed by an impaired driver while in a work zone. Just before the crash, the driver looked down at his cell phone. Not only distracted, the driver had also been drinking. He now faces charges of vehicular manslaughter.

Source: Wayne State University

Roadway work zones can be hazardous both for drivers and for workers on site. The latest data from the Federal Highway Administration show that in 2015 nationwide, there were an estimated 96,626 crashes in work zones an increase of 8% over 2014. Of these crashes, 642 (0.7%) involved at least one fatality.

On average, 85% of work zone fatalities are drivers or passengers in cars. Of the fatal crashes in 2014, major contributing factors included speeding (28%), lack of seatbelt use (25%), alcohol (25%), and distraction (16%). Approximately 40% of fatal crashes in work zones are rear-end collisions. When compared to 16% of all fatal crashes nationwide, this is a huge percentage. It also provides insight into areas for improvement.

States have approached this issue a few different ways. Some have focused on safety campaigns, others on enforcement and some states have looked into technology to help decrease these crashes. Most safety campaigns encourage drivers to drive more slower and be alert in work zones. Almost all states have increased fines for speeding or other traffic violations in work zones. In Massachusetts and many other states, the fines in work zones are doubled.

Illinois, which has had a general prohibition against handheld cell phone use while driving since 2014, has banned hands-free cell phone use in work zones. Arkansas banned handheld cell phone use while driving in work zones in 2011. Wisconsin is another state specifically banning handheld cellphone use by drivers in construction zones. Wisconsin’s ban took effect in October 2016, and after one year, it isn’t clear it’s having the desired effect. Since the ban started, and combined with increased enforcement, new work zone signage, and a safety campaign, the number of work zone crashes is up and many people are still using their cell phones in work zones. According to David Pabst, Director of Safety for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, “It’s still a problem, and we haven’t gotten the message through to people to put their phone down in a work zone.”

Massachusetts has been looking at engineering and technology options for improved work zone safety. In June 2016, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) established a Work Zone Safety Task Force with members from a number of MassDOT divisions, the Massachusetts State Police, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, the Massachusetts Sherriffs’ Association and Construction Industries of Massachusetts. The Work Zone Safety Task Force issued recommendations in early 2017 and MassDOT is now in the process of implementing a number of new safety enhancements in work zones, including portable rumble strips at the beginning of work zones, and flashing blue LED lights on portable trailers in work zones, to simulate the presence of a police vehicle. Pilot testing of trailers with these blue lights has been conducted at construction zones along Route 2 and Interstate 190.

There are a number of additional technology options that could be considered moving forward., including using communication technologies. IBM-designed SmartCones use wireless technology to alert construction zone workers to potential threats. SmartCones placed strategically ahead of a work zone have been shown to be effective at alerting drivers about the work area and at slowing traffic.

Each SmartCone contains a high powered computing platform running SmartCone IoT software and sensors. Source:

Researchers at the University of Transportation Center in Alabama recently evaluated a number of different intrusion sensing and alarm technologies for alerting construction zone workers when a vehicle has errantly entered their active work area. Led by Eric Marks, Ph.D., the research team compared different options including kinematic, infrared, pneumatic, microwave, radar, and radio technologies, and then field tested two commercially-available systems: Intellicone Safelane and the Traffic Guard Worker Alert System. Both systems are portable and easy to deploy around a work site. Both use sensors that detect intrusion and then wirelessly send signals to an alarm system with multiple types of alerts.

In their analysis, the researchers evaluated the systems’ alarm volume, worker response time, driver response time, and vehicle stopping time and distance at different traveling speeds. The Intellicone and Traffic Guard systems performed comparably, and on average it took a worker less than 1 second to respond to the warning alerts. Based on their review and analysis, the research team recommended the Traffic Guard system for short tapers in work zones and for short-term or mobile highway construction zone projects. The Intellicone was recommended for longer tapers where traffic barrels or other longer-term temporary devices are being used. The researchers recommended the AWARE (Advanced Warning and Risk Evasion) system for safety against intrusion in longer-term work zone projects. AWARE requires the most infrastructure and setup, but provides the most comprehensive alarms.

Resource for further information: National Workzone Safety Information Clearinghouse,

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. 


YouTube Research Spotlight: Research to Improve At-Grade Rail Crossing Safety

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

The UMTC Research Section Launches a Research Spotlight YouTube Channel. We are showcasing research currently being conducted on “At-Grade Rail Crossing Safety” by Radhameris Gomez.  Ms. Gomez is a PhD candidate in the UMass Transportation Engineering Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. View the overview video (3 minutes) or the extended video (10 minutes) to find out how she became interested in studying transportation engineering.

TrailCrashes at roadway-railroad intersections happen far too often. Federal Railroad Administration data show that 2,025 such crashes occurred in the United States in 2016, resulting in 265 fatalities and 798 injuries. There have been a number of roadway-rail intersection crashes recently. For example, in Florida, an Amtrak train collision with a car left one person dead; in Arkansas, one person was killed and another injured when their car crossed into a train’s path; and in North Carolina, a train crashed into a car that stopped on the railroad tracks when the safety arms came down, and the car driver was killed. Earlier in March, a freight train collided with a charter bus in Mississippi that had become stuck on a rail crossing with low clearance on the crest of a slope. Four people were killed and others injured; it was the 161st crash since 1976 at that crossing. After a March snowstorm, a local DPW worker in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, died when his snowplow backed onto railroad tracks when a train was coming. At that intersection, there are no gate arms or traffic signals to help warn drivers when a train would be coming; there had been five other crashes and four other deaths at that location since the 1970s.

Previous studies have examined primary contributing factors for grade-crossing train-car crashes and how these crashes can be prevented. Jeff Caird and colleagues at the University of Calgary analyzed over 300 grade-crossing crashes in Canada (2002). They estimated that adding flashing lights to a rail crossing without them has the potential to reduce crashes by over 60 percent, as compared to crossbucks alone. Michael Lenné and colleagues at Monash University in Australia conducted a driving simulator study (2010) on driving behavior at three different types of at-grade rail crossings: stop-controlled, with flashing lights, and with a traffic signal. The researchers found that participants slowed their vehicles the most when approaching rail crossings with flashing lights.