“Psychology plays a huge role in terms of trying to understand how drivers are interacting with technology.”

A Focus on Distractions

Years ago, while working in the aviation industry on research about preventing plane crashes, David Strayer, PhD, had a breakthrough: He noticed the same distractions pilots were dealing with in the air were affecting drivers on the road.

His curiosity was piqued.

For the past 12 years, Strayer has been researching, testing and drawing significant conclusions about the effects of distracted driving and how distractions are interpreted and processed within the brain.

“It turns out a lot of the technology that has been created to promote convenience can actually have an adverse effect and overload brain mechanisms, resulting in distractions,” Strayer says. “As a human factors psychologist , I observe what I see in the real world, link it to theory, develop hypotheses and then test them in the lab.”

What he has found has helped save lives.

Dr. Strayer in Action

Dr. Strayer observes a participant texting during a driving simulation.

Observing Driver Distraction

Dr. Strayer observes a study participant attempting to send a text message while managing the road during a driving simulation.

Testing the Brain

How can you tell if someone is paying attention? Psychologists have the tools to measure levels of distraction and at what point these distractions can create driving hazards.

To analyze human brain activity and determine how attention is allocated, Strayer and his team at the University of Utah use advanced technology, like electrodes and electroencephalography (EEG) skull caps, to measure electrical impulses and eye movements that indicate distraction. They also employ behavior techniques to study how attention is allocated or the degree to which someone is distracted.

For example, Strayer and his team use a detection response task device, or a “DRT,” to record driver reaction time in response to red and green lights. EEG skull caps chart brain activity so they can determine a subject’s mental workload while he or she is driving.

“We’ve found that if you talk on a cellphone while driving, the odds of getting in a crash are four times higher than if you’re not talking on the phone,” Strayer says. “That’s basically the same odds as if you are legally drunk. It doesn’t matter if it’s hands-free or not — cognitively, you’re just as distracted.”

Human Factors Psychology at Work

Keeping the Roads Safe

Cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer, PhD, studies how the brain processes information to better understand what causes driver distraction. By determining what takes our attention off the road, he’s helping to develop regulatory policies that keep us safer behind the wheel.

Safer Roads

Strayer is transferring his research from the lab to public policy. In 2013, alongside the American Automobile Association, he presented his research findings to several key players in the transportation industry, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Safety Council and National Transportation Safety Board. He has also testified in front of Congress twice.

Today, in his home state of Utah, texting while driving is a felony, no different from driving under the influence of alcohol. The state has some of the strictest distracted driving laws in the nation, and that’s largely due to Strayer’s research findings.

In Utah’s driver education classes, new drivers are required to watch Strayer’s 30-minute video about the dangers of texting while driving; research that has been proven in his lab.

“It’s rewarding to see that the research we’ve done has had such an impact on something that we all do every day,” says Strayer. “That hopefully makes us all safer.”

Human Factors and Engineering

Human factors and engineering psychologists combine technology with psychology to improve the relationship between people and machines, which can enhance performance, productivity and safety. They use psychological science to guide the designs of products, systems and devices we use every day.

Learn more about the science of human factors and engineering psychology

For Students

Human factors and engineering psychologists study the interplay between people and technology. 

Resources for StudentsResources to help you pursue a career in psychology
A degree in psychology can lead to a fulfilling career that makes a difference in people’s lives.

  


A Career in Human Factors and Engineering PsychologyFind out what it takes to become a human factors and engineering psychologist
Human factors and engineering psychology focuses on improving and adapting technology, equipment and work environments to complement human behavior and capabilities.

For Teachers

An advanced degree in psychology is the foundation of many interesting career paths within the discipline. In addition, an understanding of the science of psychology — for example, by earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject — can help students in their careers and their lives.

Resources for TeachersExplore classroom resources
Understanding the science of psychology can help students in their careers and their lives. Psychological science is the foundation of many interesting career paths.
  


Psychology Can Take You Great PlacesLearn what it takes to pursue a career in psychology
You don’t have to look far to see the impact that psychologists make. They contribute in almost every profession, from health care and law enforcement to sport performance and space exploration.

For School Counselors

Human factors and engineering psychologists are problem solvers. Students interested in using science to better understand the interaction between people and machines might be interested in a career in this subfield of psychology.

Resources for CounselorsResources to help your students pursue a career in psychology
A degree in psychology can lead to a fulfilling career that makes a difference in people’s lives.

  


A Career in Human Factors and Engineering PsychologyFind out what it takes to become a human factors and engineering psychologist
Human factors and engineering psychology focuses on improving and adapting technology, equipment and work environments to complement human behavior and capabilities.