Safer Drivers, Safer Roads

Young teen boy learning to drive with guidance from his father.

DeReece Smither is a research psychologist who works for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Her main job is to research human behavior as it relates to roadway safety.

DeReece Smither, research psychologist at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Click a button to watch an interview with DeReece Smither:

“I’m really a scientist,” she told Fast Forward. “I design research studies. I have to figure out the best ways of measuring people’s behavior. And I’m interested in drivers.”

DeReece explained that there are really two sides to traffic safety. First, there’s the vehicle side. Are the vehicles safe? Is there a defect in a certain model that might warrant a recall? Then there’s the human side: specifically, the behavior of the driver and the passengers. DeReece specializes in determining how certain aspects of driver behavior influence roadway safety.

For example, DeReece is currently conducting a research study on drivers’ prescription and non-prescription drug use. She wants to know the affect that specific drugs have on people’s ability to safely operate a car.

“One medication might be beneficial to a sizeable group,” she said. “Take heart medication. It could actually be difficult for people to not take it and then operate their car. But other drugs they might take might make you not drive your car as well. That’s the balance that we’re consistently struggling with.”

To answer this and other questions, DeReece spends much of her time designing research studies.

“You start out with a question,” she said. “The question could come from anywhere. A congressman. A concerned parent who had a husband who died in a crash. So what happens is, these questions come along and we try to figure out how to answer them.”

First, she figures out the best way to study the behavior in question. To study the effect of a certain medication on driving ability, she might give her test subjects a dose of the medicine in question before having them operate a virtual driving simulator, comparing the results to other test subjects who didn’t take the drug. Then she repeats the experiment a number of times, sometimes changing the experiment slightly, in order to determine that her results aren’t just a one-time phenomenon. After analyzing the results, DeReece has hard data to share with lawmakers and other interested parties, who can use the results to create policies and laws.

“If the impact [of a medication] is good, then that’s great,” she said. “If the impact is negative, then how do we intervene?”

DeReece said that her favorite part of what she does is that her research actually has an impact in the real world and helps to decrease the number of car accidents. For example, she has worked with law enforcement agencies to train officers to identify signs of intoxicated driving.

“That somebody needs this information and can potentially use [it]—that’s probably the best thing about it. It means something,” she said.

DeReece also explained that there are numerous options for students interested in working for NHTSA. The different positions range from engineers who design cars, materials, and equipment, to lawyers who ensure that auto companies obey recall rules when a problem is detected, and to psychologists like DeReece.

“You name something, and I could probably figure out a transportation-related job that someone does in my agency,” she said.

If you want to learn more about NHTSA, visit their Web site. Also, check out DeReece’s video to hear more clips from her interview!

Aaron Mack
Fast Forward: Volume 3 Issue 5 – Safety