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Publication Number:      Date:  May/June 1999
Issue No: Vol. 62 No. 6
Date: May/June 1999


FHWA's Driver Performance Laboratory

by Kathryn Wochinger, Cathy Emery, and Elizabeth Alicandri

The Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA's) Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) in McLean, Va., includes a Driver Performance Laboratory. The laboratory, supervised by FHWA's Office of Safety Research and Development, investigates issues of driver performance related to highway and traffic engineering. Its mission is to improve highway design elements and operations by obtaining information on driver performance and applying that information to traffic engineering and the design of in-vehicle information systems.

Video-based, part-task driving simulator.
The driving performance of this test subject using the video-based, part-task driving simulator is being monitored.

A distinguishing feature of the Driver Performance Laboratory is its four experimental facilities, which complement each other and allow researchers to study complex issues in a sequential, progressive manner. The facilities include a sign simulator, a part-task driving simulator, a full-task driving simulator, and a reconfigurable instrumented test vehicle. The sign simulator provides the means to evaluate driver recognition and comprehension of highway signs. The part-task driving simulator is frequently used to test prototypes of in-vehicle displays. The full-task driving simulator obtains measures of driver performance under varying, but safe, conditions, and the instrumented vehicle enables research to be conducted in the natural driving environment.

Research at the laboratory is conducted by a multidisciplinary team of specialists with educational backgrounds and experience in experimental psychology, human factors, computer programming, traffic engineering, and traffic modeling.

Research Output

Research results are incorporated into highway design handbooks and guidelines, as well as traffic simulation models.

For example, results from the laboratory were documented in the Older Driver Highway Design Handbook, which was developed to improve roadway safety for older drivers by providing design guidelines for geometrics, signing, and pavement markings of at-grade intersections, grade-separated interchanges, roadway curvature and passing zones, and construction/work zones. The handbook will soon be accessible on the World Wide Web at the TFHRC Web site (http://www.tfhrc.gov). FHWA sponsors workshops to demonstrate to traffic engineers how to apply the guidelines in the handbook to traffic design problems.

Full-task, highway driving simulator.The full-task, highway driving simulator is currently undergoing a major upgrade.

The laboratory also conducted sign evaluation studies, and the results led to recommendations regarding candidate signs for inclusion in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). These signs include the alternate sign for "Right Lane Closed Ahead" [W20-5], the "Advance Flagger" sign [W20-7A], and the "Mandatory Seat Belt" sign [R16-1] adopted for inclusion in the revised MUTCD.

Research on Advanced Traveler Information Systems (ATIS) will lead to recommendations to be published in future editions of the Design Guidelines for ATIS/CVO. This document provides specific recommendations regarding the design and operation of ATIS and commercial vehicle operations (CVO) displays, controls, routing and navigation, motorist services, and safety/warning information.

Additional laboratory research that is relevant to the guidelines includes evaluating route guidance displays in residential areas, landmark icons in route guidance displays, and auditory and visual icons in in-vehicle information systems as "cues" to roadway signs.

Data obtained from the laboratory are also used in modeling applications. For example, The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is incorporating data from a study of driver fatigue conducted in the full-task simulator into a driver behavior model. Data from the laboratory will also be used to support the Driver Performance Module for the Interactive Highway Safety Design Model (IHSDM), a computer-aided design package used by traffic engineers to develop two-lane rural highways.


The Driver Performance Laboratory supports the strategic goals of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) by focusing on driver-related research and highway safety. FHWA recognizes the importance of understanding driver performance in relation to elements of the roadway, and the Driver Performance Laboratory has established a five-year program of research examining myriad driver performance issues. The laboratory makes a substantial contribution to the achievement of DOT's primary goal - to reduce the number of transportation-related injuries and fatalities.

Instrumented test vehicle.
Instrumented test vehicle.

For other articles in Public Roads about driver-performance research and the facilities of the Driver Performance Laboratory, see "HYSIM: the Next Best Thing to Being on the Road" in the Winter 1994 issue, "The Human Factors Field Research Vehicle: FHWA Takes Its Show on the Road" in the January/February 1998 issue, and "Effects of Partial and Total Sleep Deprivation on Driving Performance" in the January/February 1999 issue.

Dr. Kathryn Wochinger is a research psychologist with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). She holds a doctorate in experimental psychology from George Mason University. Dr. Wochinger is the SAIC support manager for FHWA's Human Factors Resident Research Program at TFHRC.

Dr. Cathy Emery is a research scientist in the Department of Psychology at George Mason University. She conducts research in the Driver Performance Laboratory at TFHRC under a research support contract. She received her doctorate in experimental psychology from the University of Louisville in 1995. Her area of expertise is in environmental cognition, especially map reading and map design. Dr. Emery is a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

Elizabeth Alicandri is an engineering research psychologist and the manager of the Human Factors Laboratory in the Traffic and Driver Information Systems Division of FHWA's Office of Safety and Traffic Operations Research and Development at TFHRC. She has participated in human factors highway safety research since 1984. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Georgetown University and is currently a master's degree candidate in traffic engineering at the University of Maryland.



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