The inconvenience of evidence
By Dr. StEvEN J. BrECkLEr • ExECutIvE DIrECtOr FOr SCIENCE
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
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 — distraction.gov — 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
If it is the insights from
psychological science that have
helped to sound the alarm, it is also
our science that will offer solutions.
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
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. n