The Human Factors Safety Laboratory (HFSL) is a human factors research laboratory with a focus on safety issues at the University of Minnesota. It is a facility of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Safety-focused and Human-centered

The mission of HFSL is to improve safety and efficiency in high-risk domains, with an emphasis on transportation and healthcare, by studying human behavior and applying what is known about human capabilities and limitations from research in cognitive, perceptual, and motor processes. As our discipline (human factors) implies, the HFSL research strategy is based on a human-centered approach, considering the human first within the larger socio-technical system. Our approach pairs well with research questions on the design, testing, or evaluation of complex systems, devices, or tasks/processes that interact with or involve humans.

Our core staff of behavioral research specialists, including psychologists, computer scientists, and mechanical engineers, gives the HFSL a broad range of research capabilities. This core group is linked to a wide interdisciplinary network of experts in basic and applied sciences throughout the University of Minnesota to provide a flexible and comprehensive research capacity. Furthermore, the research lab has access to significant resources (e.g., driving simulators, patient simulators), allowing our team to approach research questions with a diversity of methods.

The Lineage of HFSL

HFSL began as the Human Factors Research Laboratory (HFRL) in 1989, under the direction of Professor Peter Hancock, newly recruited from the University of Southern California to the Department of Kinesiology. The laboratory was a cousin to several transportation-focused organizations at the University, taking advantage of a boom in transportation and intelligent vehicles research in the late 80s and early 90s, including the Center for Transportation Studies and the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute, both of which also began around this time. HFRL was a pioneer in new simulation technologies becoming available at this time, particularly for driving and aviation, which accounted for the majority of the research output of the laboratory.

In 2001, Nicholas Ward became director of the laboratory. The driving simulation portion* of the laboratory moved to the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the name of the driving simulation laboratory changed to HumanFIRST, which stood for Human Factors Interdisciplinary Research in Simulation and Transportation. While the research method of choice remained simulation, new topics of investigation such as distraction with cell phones and driving under the influence became a significant focus of research during this era. Michael Manser became director of HumanFIRST in 2008, and the laboratory undertook two significant research projects focusing on intelligent signage at intersections, as well as using the telemetries of the late-generation cell phones and then the new smartphones to provide feedback to new teenage drivers. The laboratory became a part of the Roadway Safety Institute, which was a Region 5 University Transportation Center that closed in 2018.

*the aviation simulation portion of the laboratory moved to Kansas State University under the direction of Kip Smith, while the kinesiology-focused portion of the laboratory remained in the Department of Kinesiology.

In 2014, Nichole Morris became the principal investigator and director of the laboratory, and the work in the lab extended to crash reporting, pedestrian safety, and healthcare. The name of the laboratory was initially changed to Human Factors Interdisciplinary Research in Safety and Transportation, to reflect a shift in focus towards safety issues to be more defined by the outcome of interest, instead of the method or domain area. This shift was capitalized in 2024 when the name of the laboratory changed to the Human Factors Safety Laboratory (HFSL), which is both a nod to the original name of the laboratory and a reflection of our current research focus. 

Funding and Support

The HFSL is currently a 100% soft-money laboratory, meaning that our time and research are covered by non-permanent funding sources (grants, contracts) instead of more permanent funding mechanisms (tuition, endowments). Historically, our funding and support have come from a variety of sources. More recently, we have been supported by grants and contracts from the US Department of Transportation, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota Department of Public Safety, U.S. Department of Defense (AFC), and the National Science Foundation.