Highway Safety Research Analyst
Susan A. Ferguson, PhD
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Like many other experimental psychology graduate students, I began graduate school with the intention of pursuing a traditional career in academe. I had a strong interest in research and a love of learning that I thought would carry over into teaching. But after many years in graduate school and a number of opportunities spanning about five years teaching psychology to undergraduates, I realized that the academic life was not for me. Research was what I wanted to do — preferably in a field that would offer variety and challenge.
With an open mind, I interviewed for a position as a research analyst with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. I knew nothing about highway safety, but had all the right skills to conduct research, even though my skills were honed in a predominantly experimental setting. I met with a multidisciplinary team of researchers at the institute, including other psychologists, statisticians, epidemiologists and engineers, all of whom brought different and complementary skills to the field. This was the perfect research setting for me to focus on producing high-quality research among a team of professionals. When the position was offered to me, I accepted with a clear heart, but not without the usual trepidation that accompanies a major career shift.
Since that first day in my new job over five years ago, there has never been a dull moment. As is necessary for all research, to conduct highway safety research, one must be able to design studies applying basic scientific principles, to supervise research, analyze data, draw conclusions and write reports. In this case, however, the domain of interest was the real world of highway safety, so as a researcher, I had to mesh experimental design principles with practical reality. The variety of research in which the Institute is involved also provided an exciting new challenge for me. The mission of the institute is to find ways to reduce the losses on our nation's highways — losses due to injury, death and property damage. What this means in practice is that everything that has a direct impact on motor vehicle safety is up for grabs. William Haddon, the first administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (then called National Highway Safety Bureau) and the Institute's founder, espoused many years ago that there are several ways to improve highway safety. He proposed that countermeasures should target pre-crash events, the crash itself and post-crash events. Within each of these phases, there are human, vehicle and environmental factors that can be targeted. Putting these crash phases and factors together yields a practical and multifaceted approach for reducing highway losses.
In the last five years, I have conducted research on many different topics, including teenage driving, alcohol-impaired driving, daylight saving time effects and occupant restraint systems. I have published this work in many peer-reviewed journals and have presented my results at a variety of forums including to the local community, the highway safety community, and federal and state legislators. This diversity has required the wearing of many different hats and at least a working knowledge of other disciplines such as epidemiology, engineering and physics. But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this job is the opportunity to educate and inform many groups of stakeholders, from consumers to state and federal institutions. For example, Institute research is used by the federal government to inform the regulatory process governing vehicle safety standards, and at the state level, to design laws governing driver behavior. We also provide consumer-oriented materials, both written materials and videotapes, on subjects such as vehicle crashworthiness, teenage driving and airbag safety, which can help consumers decide what vehicles to buy, how to reduce risks for beginning drivers, and how to avoid airbag-related injuries. A big part of the institute's job is to inform the community about important highway-safety issues and countermeasures that can really make a difference. To this end, we provide media outlets with the results of our research and keep them informed about the emerging issues that they should cover.
What this all adds up to is a job that is full of variety and challenge. It requires an ability to handle multiple projects and to respond to emerging priorities. If you are looking for a field where your research can really make a difference, perhaps you should consider highway safety research.
(Originally published in the January/February 1997 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)