College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences

Dr. Justin Owens: Analysis of the Non-Driving Mobility Needs of People with Disabilities

Transportation Research Spotlight

Dr. Justin Owens: Analysis of the Non-Driving Mobility Needs of People with Disabilities


Dr. Justin Owens profile picture

Dr. Justin Owens is a human factors research scientist in the Center for Vulnerable Road User Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. His research focuses on ways to improve safety for all road users, particularly child passenger safety, pedestrians, bicyclists and people with disabilities, both in the current transportation paradigm and as our vehicle fleet shifts to automated control. Owens has conducted a significant amount of research on driver performance in the real world including work on driver distraction, drowsiness and interactions with in-vehicle electronic devices.

He earned his Ph.D. in 2008 from Brown University, where his dissertation examined the role of visuospatial attention in the control of anticipatory locomotion and his M.S. in Applied Psychology from Clemson University in 2003.One study Dr. Owens concluded in December 2019, sponsored by CATM, was titled “Analysis of the Non-Driving Mobility Needs of People with Disabilities". The research, beginning in February 2018, had the goal of identifying and prioritizing specific barriers and transportation needs facing people with disabilities (PWD). The researchers pinpointed several high-priority needs for each disability type, including:


  • structural barriers to movement for people with physical disabilities,
  • sensory barriers precluding people with perceptual disabilities from accessing needed information and
  • informational barriers to travel for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.


To complete the research, a nationwide survey was conducted via the internet. Recruitment assistance was provided by many established disability advocacy and educational groups across the country. In response, 160 individuals ages 18-81 participated. The majority of respondents were white (91 percent), female (68 percent) and between the ages of 36 and 65 (58 percent). Disabilities varied widely, including 77 percent physical, 26 percent sensory, 13 percent intellectual/developmental and 40 percent multiple disabilities.

Bar graph of research results.Participants reported a wide variety of barriers to transportation. In general, PWD found it hard to get where they needed to go using public transportation. Many reported difficulty with public transit, particularly those with sensory and intellectual and developmental disabilities, for whom obtaining and understanding information was difficult. People with physical disabilities reported challenges traversing physically challenging areas, like broken/slippery sidewalks, and entering and exiting transit vehicles.

 Overall, the study provided valuable insight into the broad range of challenges facing PWD as they traverse the established physical environments of our society. PWD are a varied population with diverse functional impairments living in a wide range of geographic areas. Each area has different access to public transportation and paratransit. The findings of the research underline that it is imperative that technology and transportation advancement be accomplished with significant input from all parts of the disability community. Only then can equity in transportation be assured as part of the future societal infrastructure.