Science Directions

On Dec. 13, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for a nationwide ban on automobile drivers' use of portable electronic devices. No talking on cellphones and no texting while driving. The recommended ban includes so-called hands-free devices, and would be accompanied by high-visibility enforcement.

The evidence is clear: Distracted driving kills. In 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a report titled "Driver distraction: A review of the current state-of-knowledge." That was followed in 2009 by a summit on distracted driving convened by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The NHSTA has even created a special website as a resource for data, research and facts about distracted driving.

The latest call by the NTSB is the result of a growing number of traffic fatalities attributed to the use of portable electronic devices. APA has been a strong and vocal advocate for policies and actions to address this problem. We co-sponsored the 2009 summit, and made sure that psychology was well represented. We called upon LaHood to release a Distracted Driver Action Plan, a message we reinforced with congressional leaders. The NHTSA action plan was finally released in April 2010. The Monitor has also featured stories on how psychological science informs the problem.

Creating awareness about research on driver distraction has been a priority of APA's Science Directorate for many years. Distracted driving is a public health hazard. It affects drivers of all ages. It extends well beyond cellphones and is compounded by an expanding and heavily promoted array of new automotive technologies. We know all of this, because much of the evidence comes from psychological science.

Science has a way of challenging conventional wisdom and causing inconvenience. An accumulating body of research evidence ultimately established a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. Cigarette manufacturers tried to spin it differently, and smokers resisted the advice to give it up. Yet the weight of the evidence continues to grow, and our behaviors have changed dramatically.

A growing body of research evidence is uncovering the causes of global warming and how human behavior contributes to the problem. Many of our industrial and national leaders refuse to accept the evidence, but the evidence continues to mount. As it does, our behaviors slowly begin to change. As former vice president Al Gore put it, this is indeed an inconvenient truth.

And so it is with the substantial body of research evidence now making it clear that portable electronic devices cause driver distraction. The pushers of technology tried to convince us that hands-free devices would solve the problem. But the research evidence—mainly from psychology—tells us otherwise. In this case, we are still early on the learning curve, and few of us are prepared to go cold turkey. It is inconvenient. We must give up that on which we have become dependent.

If it is the insights from psychological science that have helped to sound the alarm, it is also our science that will offer solutions. Human behavior is at the root of each of these challenges. Behavioral research showed us how to change smoking behavior, and it is beginning to shed light on changing behaviors that contribute to climate change. It will take behavioral research to establish effective interventions and to develop and evaluate better technologies that reduce driver distraction.

As a science, psychology both contributes to and respects the results of research evidence. We always seek the truth, even when the truth may be inconvenient.