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Human factors research enhances safe driving


Laura Toole Laura Toole

BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 13, 2012 – Laura Toole’s entire family worked in transportation, so when it came time to pick a field of study, she chose something different for her major at Virginia Tech -- psychology, in the College of Science. Then an undergraduate internship showed her the potential importance of her major to the field of transportation, and undergraduate research with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute brought her back to the family career choice.

“My whole family is in transportation. My sister and dad are civil engineers. My dad just retired from the Federal Highway Administration and my mother still works there," said Toole."My sister (Christine Toole, Class of 2008) studied civil engineering at Virginia Tech, which is how I got to know the school."

While an undergraduate, Laura Toole of Alexandria, Va., interned for two summers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "The second summer I was in the Office of Behavioral Safety Research. I saw that I could apply my psych degree to transportation," she said.

Toole made an information-seeking visit to the Federal Highway Administration in McLean, Va. “Most of the people I talked to were human factors experts. Then as a senior, I started to do undergraduate research at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, and most of it was related to human factors," she said. "The combination of the visit and starting to do research at [the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute] was what lead me to apply to graduate schools in human factors."

She worked with Andy Schaudt, senior research associate for the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the institute, on an enhanced rear signaling project. Researchers have been looking at reasons for and solutions to rear-end collisions, such as when stopped or slow trucks are hit from the rear by other vehicles. Before testing various solutions, researchers examined a great deal of data. Toole helped by testing the algorithms and wrote alternate text for the figures in the final report. "I also gained experience with the initiation and maintenance of multiple vehicle data acquisition systems that are used in our fleet vehicles," Toole said.

She then did data reduction for Greg Fitch, senior research associate with the Center for Truck and Bus Safety, who researches driver distraction. "That involved watching videos from a naturalistic truck study. I was validating events that had been marked by the data collection system. An example is where the data collection system marks longitudinal deceleration, such as braking, I would look to see if they were stopping for a stoplight, for instance, or something like a car in front of them stopping suddenly. The system also marks swerves, and so on."

Toole is now a graduate research assistant with the Center for Truck and Bus Safety and a master's degree candidate in the human factors program in industrial and systems engineering at Virginia Tech.

Her present research, funded by the National Surface Transportation Safety Center for Excellence at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, is also her thesis project.

Once again working with Fitch, Toole is looking at how factors of fatigue and drowsiness are related to crash risk and mobile device use in commercial motor vehicle drivers.

Hours-of-service rules are a major strategy for preventing fatigue among drivers. But research has shown that other factors are involved in driver fatigue and there is no one simple solution. Consequently, many researchers and educators, including those from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, are working to develop a comprehensive fatigue management program and the transportation institute is working on a manual to be used by carrier management.

Using data from a previous naturalistic truck driving study, Toole is investigating the relationship between drowsiness, mobile device use, and crash risk. "There have been subjective reports from truck drivers that talking on a cell phone improves alertness in monotonous driving conditions. However, whether truck drivers actually use cell phones or other mobile devices, such as CBs, more frequently when drowsy, and how such behavior affects their risk of a safety-critical event, is not well known," said Toole.

"By analyzing video footage, vehicle data, and sleep measurement data of truck drivers operating on revenue-producing routes, I hope we can generate much needed insight," she said.

Analysis just started July 1, but she expects to have enough data to complete her thesis and receive her master's degree in industrial and systems engineering in December 2012.  

What will be next?

"I would love to do research but haven’t thought about a job yet," said Toole.

Members of Toole's thesis committee are Tonya Smith-Jackson, professor of industrial and systems engineering; Rich Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck and Bus Safety; and Woodrow Winchester, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering. Smith-Jackson and Hanowski are co-chairs.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute conducts research to save lives, time, money, and protect the environment. One of the seven university-level research institutes created by Virginia Tech to answer national challenges, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute continually advances transportation through innovation and has impacted public policy on the national and international level.

Written by Susan Trulove.