A young girl prepares to cross a busy street, her face plastered to a smartphone. Will she step off the curb and run for it or wait for a gap?
It may sound like a phone-happy, distracted pedestrian but it’s actually the reverse: The girl is using a smartphone—coupled with virtual-reality technology—to help her learn how to cross the street safely.
The experiment is the latest brainchild of APA Fellow David Schwebel, a leading researcher in child-injury prevention and professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where he directs the UAB Youth Safety Lab.
Schwebel has created a sophisticated street-crossing training application that runs using software for a smartphone retrofitted with Google Cardboard—an inexpensive virtual-reality platform.
The user just places a phone into a cardboard or plastic viewer, and looks through its plastic lenses into a virtual world of traffic—complete with sounds and passing cars. The “traffic” moves at different speeds, with variances for car distances and gap sizes. When students judge it safe, they click a button and step off the virtual curb to cross the street.
“We record absolutely everything,” says Schwebel. “We know exactly when they choose to cross the street, their speed of walking, the speed of vehicles, which gaps they’re choosing, whether they enter soon after a car passes or if there’s a delay—which is a good proxy of their cognitive processing.”
The simulator lets Schwebel and his students study a dangerous task without putting children at risk—and it gives participants great practice for the real world.
While the intervention may be fun, the imperative for his work is deadly serious: Pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. leaped 11 percent to more than 6,000 deaths in 2016. Of the estimated 270,000 pedestrian traffic deaths worldwide, nearly half are youths.
Schwebel is among a surprisingly scant cohort of research psychologists working in the field of youth safety. His Youth Safety Lab is one of the few academic research centers in North America devoted to researching child safety, and is a major locus for research and student training.
“When you take a step back from pedestrian safety and realize that injuries are by a huge margin the leading cause of child death in America—and one of the leading ones globally—it’s pretty remarkable that more psychologists aren’t thinking about the behavioral aspects of it,” notes Schwebel.
Schwebel has published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and conducts a wide spectrum of research at his lab: pedestrian safety, poisoning prevention, global injury prevention, dog-bite prevention, youth soccer safety, playground safety, lifeguard behavior, car-seat safety, among many others.
It’s enough potential danger to keep any helicopter parent permanently on high spin.
“Clearly at every age there are risks,” acknowledges Schwebel, “. . . but children as young as 18 months can be taught to follow rules and avoid injury.”
Although he has earned a reputation as a technologically innovative researcher, one of his most successful youth-safety interventions was decidedly low tech—and targeted caregivers as much as it did children.
He developed a “Stamp-in-Safety” program to help improve teacher supervision of preschoolers on playgrounds, where nearly 70 percent of preschool injuries occur.
“We said, the teachers are in the shade talking about their weekend and the kids are running around on the playground. How can we change this?” notes Schwebel.
The solution was simple: Give nametags to all kids and equip teachers with self-inking stamps. When teachers see a child playing safely they give him or her an ink stamp as a reward. “On the surface it’s rewarding the child for safe behavior,” notes Schwebel, “but underneath the goal was to change teacher behavior too.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Schwebel would become a psychologist. The son and grandson of psychologists—father Dr. Andrew Schwebel taught at Ohio State University, and grandfather Dr. Milton Schwebel was a dean at Rutgers University—psychology was “the family business.”
“I grew up with psychology as part of my life,” he says. “As a kid, I sometimes even went to APA conventions.”
Schwebel got a taste for applied research as an undergrad at Yale, where he worked with noted psychologist Jerome Singer. His mentor had been hired by creators of the Barney and Friends children’s television show on PBS to evaluate its effectiveness in teaching children.
“As much as parents got sick of the [theme] song, the show actually taught children a lot,” says Schwebel. “We had children watch the show, as well as getting lessons in school. Our research showed that children learned as much from the show as they did from their teachers on the same topics.”
Based on their findings, the show’s creators rewrote some episodes to increase their effectiveness. “That taught me how psychology could really make a difference,” says Schwebel.
He has carried that passion for applied psychology into much of his research, developing interventions that offer real-world tools based on data collected in his lab and in the field. In some cases, his work may have directly saved lives.
Several years ago, for instance, he was approached by an attorney representing a family whose toddler son had died from drinking torch fuel. It became one of several child-poisoning lawsuits against manufacturers.
In a series of studies, Schwebel and his researchers studied the shape, coloring and labeling of a variety of bottles to determine how likely preliterate children were to consider them as something safe to consume—or to avoid.
“We discovered, not surprisingly, that they were more likely to judge an opaque, black bottle as dangerous than a transparent torch-fuel bottle with juice-colored liquid inside,” says Schwebel, adding: “Then the company started packaging the product in a dark-colored bottle. I have to assume that my research played at least some role in that decision.”
Schwebel’s penchant for applied research and social justice also has resulted in many international research partnerships. He has worked with researchers to evaluate kerosene-safety practices in low-income South African communities and in rural Uganda, and conducted extensive research with partners in China.
”I enjoy working with people from other cultures and I also think I have some obligation,” says Schwebel, “because ultimately we conduct science to improve society. There is higher risk of injury in other countries so that’s a priority for me.”
One long-running collaboration with Iranian researchers, which because of political issues was conducted entirely through emails, highlighted self-immolation among young women in Iran.
“It’s devastating, culturally bound, and it tends to be low-educated young wives who . . . often have tough lives,” he says. “It sometimes leads to severe depression, and immolation is in many cases their only means to commit suicide.”
These days, Schwebel is focusing on getting his pedestrian-safety programs to scale big—and even hop continents.
A recent test run with schoolchildren in China was a big hit. The class went wild when the technology was introduced and the trainings netted great results. The PI on several grants from the NIH, Schwebel hopes to expand this work into other rapidly motorizing countries, including South Africa and Iran.
“With Google Cardboard all you need is a smartphone and a $3 piece of cardboard with a couple of plastic lenses and magnets. It’s not a high-priced device. And since smartphones are everywhere, even in low-income communities . . . it’s really feasible anywhere in the world,” he says.