New Research Tool Takes Students on Risky Rides
by Michelle Simmons
October 1, 2010
“How do you get from knowing what you ought to do to actually doing it?” asks Marie Helweg-Larsen, whose class used SimuRide (in background) to study the effects of texting while driving.
Study after study confirms that texting while driving is dangerous, perhaps as much so as driving while intoxicated. And despite ever more gadgets vying for drivers’ attention—iPods, GPS devices—most people still insist that these distractions are fine, especially young adults.
“It’s about risk and risk perception,” said Marie Helweg-Larsen, associate professor of psychology, whose research focuses on risk assessment. “Again and again, students didn’t think it was dangerous to text.”
For her fall 2009 seminar, Risk in Society, Helweg-Larsen teamed up with Jim Hoefler, professor of political science, and students from his policy-management senior seminar to informally test just how aware people are of risks associated with distracted driving. The timing was perfect, she noted, as the Pennsylvania legislature was considering a law limiting cell-phone use behind the wheel.
“I knew she was teaching a seminar on risk, and I thought this would be a logical connection,” Hoefler said. “It’s a big enough issue that both of us could take a piece and get something out of it.”
With funding from the Research & Development Committee, the psychology department purchased SimuRide, a driving-simulation program complete with graphics, steering wheel, accelerator, brake and gear shift. Originally developed for driving schools, SimuRide and programs like it have become a tool of choice for researchers studying issues such as aging and the effects of sleep deprivation.
Helweg-Larsen’s class set up several behavioral experiments for Hoefler’s students. They tested the effects of fear-inducing messages such as graphic public-service announcements, how drivers responded to false feedback and how they adapted to different conditions like inclement weather or night-time driving.
With only about 15 participants, the study was too small to be conclusive, said Helweg-Larsen, but “students learned the process of a study, that it takes a lot of work.”
Both professors also noted attitudinal shifts among the students by the end of the semester, but they cautioned that behavior doesn’t always match awareness and that success isn’t measured by whether individuals stop texting altogether but whether they limit its practice.
Hoefler compares texting bans to seat-belt laws. While seat-belt use is around 70 to 75 percent in states with laws on the books, states without such laws trend only about 50 to 60 percent, he said. “That last 25 percent is never going to comply.”
SimuRide has research potential elsewhere on campus, added Helweg-Larsen, citing work by Assistant Professor Jonathan Page, the psychology department’s newest faculty member. Before joining Dickinson in 2009, the cognitive neuroscientist conducted a driving study for the London Metropolitan Police Service in England, and he plans to use SimuRide in an upcoming research-methods class.
“We will create specific driving conditions and then measure brain activity, using the EEG test, [in response] to various stimuli and distracters in the driving environment,” he said. “It should be a good learning tool for the students in my class and may lead to additional research in my lab.”
Hoefler anticipates seeing policy applications in Page’s research that could benefit the Pennsylvania State Police. “If he takes this on … maybe we could work on it together,” Hoefler said. “He has the data; we have the policy interests and expertise.”