Step into my (Human Factors) Laboratory

Image of hands on a steering wheel. Traffic can be seen through the windshield.

Were you ever fascinated by a psychology class? Are you interested in the way people think and behave? Or, have you ever wanted to design or invent things that people would use on a daily basis? If any of these questions apply, you might have a blast as a transportation human factors engineer.

University students Brad Brimley and Jessica Mueller are transportation human factors researchers who are trying to put an end to automobile accidents. In an interview with Fast Forward Jessica explained what human factors engineers do.

Screenshot image taken from our interview with Jessica Mueller.

Click a button to watch an interview with Jessica Mueller:

Screenshot image from our interview with Brad Brimley.

Click a button to watch an interview with Brad Brimley:

“Human factors is a part of engineering where you look at how to design things for people. Looking at how people interact with the things around them, like cars,” Jessica said.

Jessica said her work in transportation human factors engineering involves distracted driving. She hopes to reduce automobile accidents by determining how and why people get distracted on the road; for example, by changing how they interact with in-car equipment like navigation systems.

“I go ride around with actual people in a real car on real roads, and I distract them on purpose in different ways,” she said. “We see how people behave under those heightened conditions.”

Jessica said that after she performs this real-world experiment, she repeats the same experiment in a laboratory setting. In doing so, she gets to work with a super-high-tech virtual reality driving simulator.

“We do [the experiment] again, and kind of compare the changes,” she said.

Jessica’s human factors research could potentially change the way in-car systems like GPS are designed. Hands-free technology is a great example of a human factors engineering achievement. In other words, her work could make an actual impact on people’s lives by reducing distracted driving accidents.

“I love doing these kinds of experiments. Working with people while they’re driving. Studying how people drive, why they drive the way they do, and what we can do to help make driving safer,” she said.

Brad, who is also a human factors expert, is examining how drivers react when navigating sharp curves in the road. He explained that curves are a major cause of roadway accidents and fatalities in United States. Questions he is trying to answer could include whether improved roadway markings or signs could help people more safely navigate sharp curves.

“Just being able to work on an area where there can be such a big impact because of the safety implications is a really interesting point of my research,” Brad said.

Brad explained that the type of work he and Jessica are doing has already had a big impact on reducing the number of road fatalities every year in the United States.

“Fifteen years ago, we were having 40,000 fatalities or so on our roads every single year. In that 15 years, we’ve brought it down closer to 30,000, and it’s because of the work from engineers and other planners and policymakers—the people that are involved in anything from how we design our vehicles to how we design the roads. I can only hope that now I’m contributing to the next 15 years, as well,” he said.

An experiment funded by the Iowa Department of Transportation is a great example of human factors research in action:

Researchers in Iowa wanted to determine whether certain colors of motorcycle gear or different types of motorcycle headlight configurations made motorcycle riders more visible to the average driver. If they could answer these questions, they might be able to save lives by reducing motorcycle accidents.

The experiment was conducted in the super advanced NADS-2 driving simulator, located at the University of Iowa. The researchers presented their test subjects, who were operating the driving simulator, with oncoming and parked motorcycles with different headlight configurations. The motorcycle riders were also wearing a variety of colors of helmets and jackets.

When they observed the drivers, the scientists found that modulating headlights—headlights that flux in intensity—were more visible from afar than standard headlights, as were certain colors of helmets and jackets, like bright yellow. The results gave the researchers hard evidence that might help educate motorcycle riders on the advantages of wearing high-visibility gear, like yellow instead of black. They could also give lawmakers the information they need to make decisions on motorcycle laws to enhance safety.

To Jessica Mueller, this type of experiment is what being in human factors is all about.

“We’re able to be around people, interact with them, and try to change their lives in a real way that you can actually see the impact,” she said.

If being a transportation human factors engineer sounds exciting to you, hit the web to learn more about this awesome career choice. You can also click here to learn more about the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa.

Aaron Mack
Fast Forward: Volume 3 Number 1 - National Transportation Week