Multi-tasking is part of the job for operators of traffic management centers located in most major U.S. cities.
Operators monitor highway remote cameras and analyze road sensor data, and meanwhile talk to motorists reporting traffic incidents. In the face of such overwhelming amounts of information, human errors can occur.
But when traffic management centers (TMCs) are designed with human capabilities in mind, these errors can be minimized. TMC designers now have an easier time of accomplishing this task because of a new central repository of information available via the Internet.
Researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) have created a Computer-Aided Design Support System (CADSS) that provides a complete set of tools for TMC designers who consider human factors in the design process.
"This project provides an innovative way of getting the information out," said Dr. Dennis Folds, a principal research scientist at GTRI. "One of the key challenges of any research activity is to get the results in the hands of those who will use the results. Neither Georgia Tech, nor the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA, which is funding the project with the U.S. Department of Transportation) were satisfied with just having books on a shelf. We wanted something that could be more easily infused into the design process."
The interactive tools designed by Folds' research team include: the Design Guidelines Tool; Design Dialog Tool; Case Studies Database Tool; and the Report Generation Tool.
The Design Guidelines Tool is an online human factors design handbook researchers completed in a previous project for FHWA. The computer-based version adds features for searching, indexing, getting help and obtaining other references. "This tool helps designers easily find the guidelines that are relevant to whatever they are doing," Folds explained.
The interactive Design Dialog Tool allows users to start with a blank sheet of paper and go through the human factors design process. "We are helping designers decide on the amount of floor space operators need, what kind of hardware interfaces and what kinds of software they will need," Folds said. "At every appropriate question, users can see relevant guidelines from the handbook, access tutorials to better understand the decisions they're considering, and get additional references."
The Case Studies Database helps users find good examples of human factors practices. "An example is a good way to learn," Folds said. The database was compiled with input from design engineers. Users can select from a variety of example categories, including control room layout, hardware, workstations, software systems and TMC operator responsibilities. The database includes real-life TMC examples and also best practices information from TMC simulator studies at GTRI. Information includes photos and videos from these TMCs.
The Report Generation Tool provides a way for design engineers to document what they find or determine. A report might include specifications for procurement, guidelines to pass on to a software company and documentation of a good example. "This tool helps users create a tailored output for use in other parts of the design process," Folds explained.
All of the tools have been prototyped, evaluated and are undergoing continued development. Designers can easily update the databases as knowledge evolves because the tools are an Internet-based resource accessible with any Web browser. Researchers will present their latest versions at the Transportation Research Board meeting in Washington, D.C., later this month.
The information is timely as plans are being made to upgrade many existing major metropolitan TMCs to put them in the class of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), Folds said. (ITS involves the use of sensors and high tech communications technology to make transportation more efficient.) Also, the CADSS will be helpful to designers as many new TMCs are on the drawing board. All major U.S. cities have or are about to have TMCs. And in five to 15 years, all medium-sized U.S. cities will have them, Folds predicted.
Examples of new, ITS-class TMCs are in Atlanta, Phoenix and San Antonio, Folds said. "As these were designed, engineers began to understand why they had to strongly consider human factors in design," he added. These TMCs have learned many lessons in human factors design, and some of their questions have been answered by GTRI's TMC simulator studies, ongoing since the early 1990s.
These studies provided some of the content for a TMC human factors design handbook and technical report, which in turn provided some of the content for Folds' CADSS tools.
"We believe this will be a good set of tools if designers have reasons to give priority to human factors considerations," Folds said. This emphasis varies among states and municipalities.
"Considering human factors in design saves money and creates a better product," Folds said. "It provides for better operation. There's often no second round of development to correct problems. You come closer to getting it right the first time. You avoid many of the errors and perhaps training requirements that are encountered with a non-human-factored design."
Assisting Folds with the CADSS project are researchers Brad Fain, Jeff Gerth, Amy Mykityshyn and Dana Stocks.
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