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ODU Professors Explore the Psychology Behind Accident Prevention

  • Bryan Porter
  • James Bliss

You've had an automobile accident. You drifted right, hit a pothole on the shoulder and overcorrected, sending your car into a skid that resulted in a crash into a median barrier and a nasty cut on your forehead.


To help understand what happened, we can turn to traffic police and physicians, as well as to the engineers who determine how our vehicles and roads are constructed. We also can consult psychologists, such as Old Dominion University faculty members Bryan Porter and James Bliss.


The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine (AJLM) did just that when it was planning its current January/February issue, which is devoted entirely to injury prevention. Porter and Bliss, both of whom are associate professors, are the lead authors of the issue's article "Human Factors in Injury Control."


Porter, who specializes in experimental psychology, focuses on large-scale community problems and psychology's role in solving those problems. He has studied techniques for increasing fire safety, pro-environment action and traffic safety. Bliss is a human factors psychologist interested in the reasons people ignore alarms or are reluctant to rely upon automation.


In delving into the automobile accident described above, the ODU faculty members are interested in knowing why people engage in risk-taking behavior, and they ask questions such as these:


·         What was the cognitive or physical state of the driver when the car drifted right? The article states that "human performance is best when arousal is at a moderate level, but degrades if arousal is too low or high." Was the driver involved in a heated conversation via a cell phone, or perhaps tired or daydreaming? Also, did anything about the roadway's design cause a lapse in the driver's attention?

·         Did the driver have a medical condition, even a cold, that may have contributed to the accident?  Research has shown that workers who use ladders are at a greater risk of falling when they have colds? And inner-ear disturbances to balance can place machine operators at risk, the authors state. 

·         Was the driver secure in a seat belt? If not, why? Many drivers resist the logic behind this potent fact cited by the authors: "Safety belt use decreases the odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash by about 50 percent."

·         Was the automobile equipped with air bags and did they open? Had the driver turned off the air bag mechanism, and, if so, why did he or she not want to rely on automated safety devices? Or did over-reliance on automation contribute to the accident? People who don't use seat belts because they're relying on air bags are showing "excessive trust" in automation, according to the authors.

·         Was the automobile equipped with alarm to warn of a seat belt not being engaged, or to warn of the automobile drifting off course? If so, why did the driver not react to them? The authors state that alarms can be undermined by "learned irrelevance" brought on by alarms that don't necessarily presage danger. They also assert that frequent false alarms engender distrust and subsequent lack of compliance. 

·         Does the driver have biases, beliefs or cognitive difficulties that interfere with his or her willingness or ability to act appropriately in accordance with training or warnings? "Human behavior is not always rational. Instead, people often rely on decision-making strategies involving heuristics and biases," the authors write. "It is not enough to scare people; fear alone will not motivate change (and may activate a 'defense mechanism') in the target audience. Fear, plus an action plan to avoid the danger is the most effective."      


Editors of AJLM designed the issue to be a primer for all health care professionals on the subject of injury prevention. Their goal is to reduce the number of Americans - 28 million in 2007 - who sustain injuries serious enough to require a visit to the emergency department of a hospital.


The issue was prepared with the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in Atlanta. David Sleet, a CDC researcher, collaborated with Porter and Bliss on their article and also is one of the guest editors of the issue.


Articles in the issue also explore fall prevention for older adults, Vitamin D and injury prevention, preventing opioid drug overdoses, sports injury prevention, child injury prevention, and numerous other topics. Until mid-February the issue may be accessed free of charge at http://ajl.sagepub.com/content/vol4/issue1/.


Porter and Bliss call in their article for more human factors research into behavioral adaption to technology. For example, they want to know why safety-minded design changes to vehicles or roadway environments don't always result in injury reductions. Perhaps more importantly, they suggest that human factors research in injury control move beyond the transportation and occupational issues that are most often studied. One focus they recommend is medical injury-control involving surgeries and hospital care. Another involves environments with little technology or no automation, such as playgrounds, and sports and recreation in general.

This article was posted on: January 19, 2010

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