James C. Fell

James C. Fell is a principal research scientist in the Economics, Justice, and Society department. He joined NORC in February, 2016.  His areas of expertise include behavioral studies in traffic safety, evaluating impaired driving countermeasures, determining the effectiveness of various alcohol policies and safety issues associated with the legalization of marijuana in the states.

Before joining NORC, Fell was a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) in Calverton, Maryland, from 2001 to 2016, where he worked on projects which included evaluating the effectiveness of enforcement programs, particularly highly visible, highly publicized and frequent sobriety checkpoints, in reducing impaired driving. Other projects included research on drivers arrested for driving while intoxicated (DWI), a project on increasing safety belt usage by teens, and developing various resource documents on sanctions for drivers convicted of DWI. 

Prior to joining PIRE, Fell worked with Star Mountain, Inc. in 2000 as the Director of Human Performance Technology and spent thirty years at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1969-1999) where he held a series of positions including Chief, Research and Evaluation Division (GS-15). 

Early in his career, Fell investigated motor vehicle crashes in research projects to determine their causes using the Haddon Matrix (i.e., human, vehicle, environmental factors in the pre-crash, crash, and post-crash phases of the collision). During the first 6 years of his tenure at NHTSA, he managed a number of multidisciplinary crash investigation teams. As a result, he developed a human factors crash causation system or model and published it as a Department of Transportation government report and in the Human Factors Journal (1976). It has been cited throughout the years, and although almost 40 years old, is still cited in current publications. It is a model of how human conditions, information processing and other factors interact to produce a collision.
During the 1990s when states were considering lowering their illegal BAC limit for driving from .10 g/dL to .08 g/dL, Fell co-authored one of the first studies showing the effect of BAC levels on impaired driving fatal crashes. Subsequently, he was invited by officials in 12 states to provide expert testimony on the merits of lowering the BAC to .08 (DE, DC, IL, IN, MD, MN, MO, NE, NC, TN, TX, and WV). In 2000, President Clinton signed a bill providing a strong incentive for all states to lower the BAC limit to .08; all states and the District of Columbia eventually adopted the law.
In 1994 while at NHTSA, Fell developed a statement of work for the development of a statewide sobriety checkpoint program to determine its feasibility and its effectiveness in reducing impaired driving. The State of Tennessee provided the best proposal and was awarded a cooperative agreement from NHTSA. In 1996, Fell co-authored an article that was presented at the 40th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine showing a 20% reduction in impaired driving fatal crashes associated with the Tennessee checkpoint program. NHTSA published a more comprehensive report in 1999. The “Checkpoint Tennessee” program became the model for states to replicate. The program is still listed as one of SAMSHA's Best Practices programs.

In 2009, Fell was lead author on an article published in ACER, which showed that the MLDA-21 laws were associated with significant reductions in underage drinking driver rates in fatal crashes. This study controlled for as many confounding factors as possible. It showed a 16% decrease in underage drinking driver fatal crashes associated with possession and purchase laws, a 5% reduction for zero tolerance laws, and a 5% reduction for use and lose laws. NIAAA features this article as proof that the MLDA-21 has been a successful policy. 

From 2008 to 2010, Fell was part of a team that developed an algorithm that used driver performance to assess alcohol impairment from experiments using the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) at the University of Iowa. Data collection involved 108 drivers from three age groups (21-34, 38-51, and 55-68 years of age) driving on three types of roadways (urban, freeway, and rural) at three levels of alcohol concentration (0.00%, 0.05%, and 0.10% BAC). Fell designed the scenarios used for this data collection so that they were both representative of alcohol-impaired driving and sensitive to alcohol impairment. The data from these scenarios supported the development of three algorithms: (1) the first algorithm used logistic regression and standard speed and lane-keeping measures; (2) the second used decision trees and a broad range of driving metrics that are grounded in cues NHTSA had suggested police officers use to identify alcohol-impaired drivers; and (3) the third used support vector machines. The results demonstrated the feasibility of a vehicle-based system to detect alcohol impairment based on driver behavior. The algorithms differentiated drivers with BAC levels at and above and below the illegal 0.08% BAC with an accuracy of 73 to 86%, which was comparable to the standardized field sobriety test (SFST) used by police across the country. The accuracy was achieved within approximately eight minutes of driving performance data during the trip.

Fell has been the recipient of a series of awards during his career:

  • The Award of Merit from the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine (AAAM) for significant contributions to an aspect of automotive medicine over many years, 2019.
  • The Haddon Award from the International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety (ICADTS) in recognition of successfully implementing scientific based changes in public policy that reduce the effects of alcohol and drugs on traffic safety, 2019.
  • The Donald F. Huelke Lifetime Membership Award from the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine (AAAM), 2016.
  • The Kevin Quinlan Advocacy Award from the Maryland Highway Safety Office for tremendous dedication, conviction, and leadership to making Maryland's roadways safer, specifically through impaired driving prevention, 2015.
  • The James J. Howard Highway Safety Trailblazer Award from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) for sustained outstanding leadership in endeavors that significantly improve highway safety, 2015.
  • The Erik Widmark Award, International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety, for outstanding, sustained and meritorious contribution to the field of alcohol, drugs and traffic safety, 2013.
  • Ralph Hingson Research to Practice Award, MADD, 2008.
  • Distinguished Career Service Award, NHTSA, 1999.
  • Secretary of Transportation's Silver Medal for Meritorious Achievement, 1997.
  • Distinguished Performance Award, NHTSA, 1996.
  • Superior Achievement Award from NHTSA Administrator, 1993.
  • A.R. Lauer Award for outstanding contributions to Human Factors aspects of highway traffic safety from the Human Factors Society, 1992.
  • Outstanding Performance Awards, NHTSA 1972, 1977, 1981, 1985, 1989, 1996
  • Best Scientific Paper Award, Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, 1979, 1983, and 2010.
  • Special Achievement Cash Awards, NHTSA, 1972, 1981.
  • Superior Performance Awards, NHTSA, 1984, 1996.
  • J. Mirkin Service Award, Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, 1985.
  •  Listed in Marquis Who's Who in America in Science and Engineering, since 1994-1995.