Wider Horizons

BeakersJennifer Davis wants to help you be a better driver by getting into your head.

The Lethbridge College psychology instructor is fine-tuning results collected last fall that match drivers’ psychological profiles and attitudes behind the wheel to their driving records to determine what factors combine to increase the potential for motor vehicle accidents. In short, are those “Horn broken; watch for finger” bumper stickers indicative of a behaviour that would be safer for all of us by taking the bus?

“How you choose to use your knowledge as a driver depends on your personality,” says Davis, who holds a doctorate in psychology. “People who demonstrate a certain social deviance may be prone to similar types of accidents.”

In other words, most drivers understand tailgating is not a safe practice, but some choose to ignore that knowledge if the person in front of them is driving slower than they feel is warranted. That can lead to accidents, and when a company is dependent on maintaining the safety of its employees, it might care to know who should have the keys to its vehicles and who might be better off riding shotgun. That’s what Weatherford Canada believed when it approached Lethbridge College for help in 2006. The oil-field company’s employees drove almost 61 million kilometres in 2008 in more than 2,600 vehicles, so keeping a handle on road safety is vital to the firm.

They recognized the risk that exposure brought and were looking for significant changes to driving habits that would produce rapid but sustainable results.

To that end, Andy Barnes, Weatherford’s fleet safety manager for Canada, approached Marty Thomsen,

Lethbridge College’s chair of Justice Studies. The two, fellow Justice Studies students back in 1987, determined the college had the research capacity to glean the data Weatherford, a service supplier to the oil-and-gas industry, required to achieve its goals. Lethbridge College has been working with Weatherford for about three years, designing online driver-training programs tailored to its needs.

Thomsen took the idea to Lorne MacGregor, Lethbridge College’s director of Applied Research and Innovation, who then approached Davis, an experienced researcher who spent time at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Davis, whose background involved “pure” research, had recently returned to teaching after having a family and was intrigued by an opportunity to do “applied” research.

“It’s a new direction for colleges, and there’s more support for it” she says. “Applied is what we do, so it makes sense to be involved in ‘applied’ research. Students gain a benefit through involvement, I get a chance to grow in my career as an instructor, and the community benefits from the results.”

Davis honed the survey and, in October, began collecting answers from select groups, including Weatherford employees, drivers with suspended licences, and drivers with clean records. She has involved one student in her project, and hopes there may be room for others as the work continues. Already, a team of students in Lethbridge College’s Computer Information Technology program is creating a computer interface as a second-year project, which will allow Weatherford to access the results.

Davis hopes Weatherford will ask Lethbridge College to create the education programs based on the data. The information then becomes a marketable product for the college and extends the value of Davis’s original work, says MacGregor, through creation of driver-training materials, which could be delivered online. Information can be tailored to suit individual drivers based on their attitudes discovered through an initial personality profile. Even simply taking the initial test could help employees modify their driving behaviours.

Barnes doesn’t use the word “accidents” when discussing incidents involving company vehicles. As fleet safety manager for Weatherford Canada, Barnes prefers to call them “collisions;” the word carries added gravitas, an important element when you’re working to improve your employees’ safety record.

When you have 3,500 employees recording some 61 million kilometres a year in 2,600 vehicles, safety behind the wheel becomes paramount, both for the health of workers and the company’s bottom line.

“You can have all the rules and systems you like in place, but if someone doesn’t want to follow the rules, they don’t amount to a hill of beans,” says Barnes. “They need driving skills or the right attitude when they’re behind the wheel.”

MacGregor envisions the opportunity for an expanded research field.

“The potential exists for a whole workplace safety program, not just for those employees who must drive as part of their jobs,” says MacGregor. “We’re looking for other funders who might have an interest in the findings, such as Transport Canada, the Workers Compensation Board and the insurance industry,” he says. “Even Vestas (a major wind turbine manufacturer) has shown an interest. After all, if risk-taking attitudes apply to driving, they likely apply to other areas as well. We hope to determine what factors are driving that attitude.”

Other disciplines taught at Lethbridge College also have applications for the workplace. Many of the potential projects involve cross-discipline co-operation.

The Exercise Science program could work with Criminal Justice and Emergency Medical Services to determine a fitness level for ambulance drivers, firefighters and police officers, or to determine what exercises would be useful in other physically demanding professions to keep practitioners healthy.

“All this can lead to a healthier workplace and healthier living in general,” says MacGregor. “Our Gerontology program could join with Exercise Science to assist seniors in staying involved in the activities they enjoy.

“It’s not so much thinking outside the box as thinking with a lot of different boxes. We’re building across fields, not within silos.”

Wider Horizons
Lethbridge College
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