Smart phones + smart cars = smart research career
He’s just 29 but Dr Oscar Oviedo-Trespalacios is already a world leader in research on distracted driving and mobile phones.
The young engineer from Colombia has spent the past six years working at QUT to help make humans and technology interact better and recently received a national road safety award for his outstanding work.
Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios researches driver distraction – particularly from mobile phones – at QUT’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety-Queensland (CARRS-Q) where he is a Strategic Research Fellow.
The QUT PhD graduate believes bad driving habits – like using your phone – can be just as much the fault of engineers and designers not foreseeing how technology can be misused.
Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios is among the 100 most published authors worldwide in the area of driver behaviour and cognitive ergonomics, and is ranked seventh internationally based on his impact on the field.
He was recently awarded the Australasian College of Road Safety’s inaugural Young Leaders Oration Award in recognition of his growing national and international reputation in distracted driver research.
“Oscar has rejected traditional abolitionist approaches and conducted systematic, high quality research into how and when the use of technology while driving can be made safe. He has passionately communicated his findings to policymakers, practitioners and his students by media and presentations as well as scientific publications.” – Australasian College of Road Safety
One of his most recent studies involved surveying 32 of the world’s leading road safety experts about what they believed were the biggest threats to today’s drivers. The results showed that distraction from looking at your mobile phone for two seconds or more is now seen as the biggest crash risk globally – toppling fatigue, drink driving, drug driving and speeding.
Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios came to Australia in 2014 as a research student to do his PhD at QUT in Brisbane on the topic Human Factors and Safety Engineering.
He had already completed a Bachelor of Industrial Engineering at Colombia’s Universidad de Norte in 2011 and a Masters at the same institution.
“I have always been passionate about science and technology and that’s why I studied engineering in Colombia,” he said.
“It gave me amazing skills such as systems thinking, quantitative reasoning, and an understanding of universal laws: physics, biology, chemistry, etc. But that was not sufficient for me because my mission was to improve the integration between humans and technological systems.
“So I decided to come to QUT and CARRS-Q in Australia because I had the chance to learn – through my PhD training – about areas like psychology, public health, and policymaking. As an engineer alone, I would not be able to do the research that I am doing today to create a safer and healthier world for humans in the era of technology!”
Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios said life, work, and the roads in Australia were all very different to back home in South America.
“I come from a place where a vision of zero road fatalities is not part of the discourse,” he said.
“We have rules but people don’t really follow them … We have seatbelts but drivers think that they don’t need them because they have airbags.
“When I decided to study my PhD, I wanted to go where the best research was taking place.
“Australia has a long tradition of leadership, excellence and innovation in road safety research. So, I started searching among the Australian universities working in road safety to find one that would accept an international student from a faraway country.
“I learned about CARRS-Q at QUT, and the great work they had been doing, including building road safety capacity around the world.
“I was received with open arms and the CARRS-Q team helped me start my journey as a road safety professional. I am in indebted to all of them.
“Their mentoring, and the organisation they built, has also been a platform to support others like me, such as the seven PhD and Masters students from five countries that I now supervise.”
Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios said technology was a two-edged sword, with smart cars able to be a distraction, as well as smart phones.
“We are making driving easier – we are freeing up capacity for drivers to do other activities,” he said.
“But these technologies are giving drivers the illusion of safety. As road safety practitioners, we always need to think ahead and consider the potential unintended consequences.
“One of my studies included an interview with a driver who bought a car with adaptive cruise control because she thought it would be safer. However she mentioned that, thanks to this technology, she is now capable of applying her makeup in the morning while driving. She is confident that the car will keep a safe distance from the car in front, even if she is not looking.
“Another driver, a senior, decided to buy a vehicle with a blind spot monitoring system because looking over his shoulder was very painful for him. The blind spot monitor should have made driving easier and less painful but the system became overwhelming. It was full of false alarms and became a source of distraction. This driver ended up turning off the blind spot monitoring system and never used it again. He preferred the pain of looking over his shoulder to the noise of the alarms.”
Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios said he believed CARRS-Q’s international staff and global connections were one of its biggest strengths.
“CARRS-Q has people from 20-plus different language backgrounds from all around the world,” he said.
“We are united by a common purpose which is to reduce road trauma. And the work that we do here in Australia can change the lives of people around the world as well. Diversity is also key to delivering broad reaching road safety solutions. We are in a multicultural country, and we need to consider all the cultural differences when we design our programs, strategies and interventions.”
Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios said the best part of his job was that there was always something new to discover.
“It never ends – I learn new things every day,” he said.
“I get to work with so many inspiring people and it never gets dull here because we are always trying to solve a problem or learn something new. At QUT, I have also found that because we work closely with the real world we get to see the impact of our research in Australia and around the world – and that’s so gratifying and inspiring.
“If I had to say a bad thing about the job, it would be the disappointment of sometimes seeing great ideas and projects that don’t get funded. And I also can’t believe that in some parts of the world there are people who deny evidence and science that are the work of inspiring and talented researchers.”
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