Research/Areas of Interest:

Dr. Stearns provided thought leadership to USDOT in the areas of human factors research and evaluation focusing on relationships between humans and transportation policies and processes. She has a broad understanding of the human factors issues affecting transportation due to her work as the founding Executive Agent for the DOT's Human Factors Coordinating Committee (HFCC). Her research contributions focused on social factors influencing the use, operation, and organization of transportation systems and equipment. She led research to address user acceptance of new vehicle technologies and designed and conducted evaluations of user acceptance of automotive collision avoidance and roadway departure warning systems. She led a government-industry cooperative program to develop the first generation of driver assist features using an adaptive interface system to minimize driver distraction. She led the Volpe Center's aviation human factors program and designed and conducted a longitudinal effort to assess the impact of advanced technology on transit operations. She and her team developed a software tool to evaluate and record human factors considerations for air traffic controllers' equipment, provided the human factors plan for a proposed air traffic control upgrade, and provided software tools for acquiring and archiving data on air traffic control activity. She documented the differential impacts of the energy shortage by user category. She has also analyzed alcohol-related recreational boating fatalities, use of automotive safety belts, experiences of older drivers, general aviation fatalities, marine crew fatigue, characteristics of the future FAA maintenance work force, and the impacts of crew scheduling and fatigue on the railroad industry. She has extensive experience developing data collection and analyses strategies and has consulted on, as well as designed, numerous data collection instruments and surveys.


  • Doctor of Philosophy, Boston University, USA, 1973


Mary Donahue Stearns earned an Ph.D. from Boston University with a concentration in urban sociology. Her dissertation examined the impact of eminent domain on households and neighborhoods forced to move to make way for a new highway. She holds a MA from Boston University and a BA from Boston College with majors in sociology and a minor in education. She was a Principal Technical Advisor, Division Chief and Program Manager in the human factors program at the U.S. Department of Transportation's John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center). Prior to joining the Volpe Center, she conducted field research for the Boston University School of Medicine, taught in the Sociology Department, Boston University and several other colleges and set up and ran an Urban Studies program.