When psychologist David Sleet, PhD, presented a research paper on models for changing people's driving behavior to reduce car crashes at a highway safety conference in the 1970s, the attendees were so impressed that one, Peter Ziegler, a behavioral engineer, invited him to join the Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop the area of behavioral health.
"I went there on sabbatical planning to stay for three months, but I was still there after four years," says Sleet, who moved to DOT from a faculty position at San Diego State University's School of Public Health. "It was the beginning of a new career."
Sleet then moved from DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration back to academia before accepting a position at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in 1992. Today he is the associate director for science in CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, part of the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention. In that role, he studies the causes of unintentional injuries--everything from drowning to dog bites--and manages a portfolio of prevention research that includes behavioral studies.
The toll of the preventable
The data show there's no shortage of injuries to prevent. Every six minutes, someone in the United States dies from an unintentional injury due to such causes as fires and burns, poisoning, head injuries and motor vehicle crashes, according to CDC. Unintentional injuries and injuries caused by violence, including homicide and suicide, are the leading cause of death for Americans during the first four decades of life.
CDC counters these problems by conducting surveillance of intentional and unintentional injuries, identifying behavioral and emotional risks, researching prevention strategies and communicating solutions to the public to influence their health decisions.
For example, Sleet and his colleagues point to the successes of psychology in helping manage physical and psychological trauma resulting from severe burns in children and to its potential to prevent youth violence and suicide.
To prevent drowning, they've also studied ways to increase parents' vigilance when their children play in pools, and CDC grantees are exploring models and frameworks for conceptualizing supervision that may help parents improve the safety of children at home, on the playground and in traffic.
And there's much fellow psychologists can contribute to intentional and unintentional injury prevention, Sleet says. For example, researchers still have a lot to learn about how parents can modify their own perception of danger to ensure they properly supervise their children.
Psychology plays a key role, he adds, because many fatal injuries can be associated with psychological behaviors such as intimate partner violence, alcohol abuse and risk-seeking behavior. Indeed, CDC-funded psychological research on injury prevention looks at, for example, the effectiveness of social interventions in reducing violence in schools and how well community education programs disseminate information on child-safety products.
Psychologists working on research grants awarded by CDC's Injury Prevention Center, for instance, develop intervention programs aimed to change people's behavior and reduce the incidence of drinking and driving or aggressive driving, increase the incidence of helmet use while biking or develop people's habit of using life jackets while boating. And Sleet says CDC needs more psychologists involved in such research.
"Almost all injuries have some behavioral component and are preventable if we know what the risk factors are," Sleet says. "What behaviors contribute to an injury? What interventions prevent it? What psychological rehabilitation methods work to help people who have sustained an injury? It's psychologists who are doing this work, and CDC would like them to know we value their contributions."
Plugging into CDC funding
One way interested psychologists can join CDC's injury-prevention efforts is through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program (IPA) (for others, see sidebar). In this program, government agencies and academic institutions exchange employees so that each learns from the other. Sleet used the IPA program when he left academia to enter both DOT and CDC.
"It's a great way to test the waters and see if doing research in the federal government excites you," Sleet says. "In my case, I got so excited that I ultimately decided to stay."
Even better, he notes, is that the program allows researchers to retain their faculty positions while working for the government for up to four years.
"In an agency like ours, psychologists can spend time away from their academic and clinical practices to apply theory to real-world problems," Sleet says. "I think some people underappreciate psychologists' ability to contribute to public health. We need them, and we're seeking them out."