Women of the Road Part 4: The Psychologist

In the last of our series of blogs celebrating exceptional women in a traditionally man’s world, we bring you Dr Lisa Dorn. Lisa is Associate Professor of Driver Behaviour at Cranfield University. She’s responsible for a huge body of research into why we do what we do behind the wheel, and how to change some of our risky behaviours

Lisa, what made you want to concetrate on driver psychology? 

After graduating with a degree in psychology from Aston University in 1987, I wasn’t sure which direction to take.Associate Professor Lisa Dorn

I spent a year conducting research at Birmingham University on a topic that really didn’t interest me. Then, one day, I visited an old university colleague, who told me they had a position available as a research assistant.

I was interviewed for the position and couldn’t believe my luck when they offered it to me. That was in 1988 – nearly 30 years ago!

I became part of an academic team carrying out research in driver psychology, on topics that had never been researched before. We published papers on individual and group differences in driving behaviour, and the team grew.

In 1989, a new teaching fellow, Tom Hoyes, joined, and we worked closely together in our studies, using the world’s first interactive driving simulator. Tom and I were both working towards our PhD and became great friends. It was really exciting to see how the results of our studies helped to explain how people think, feel and behave behind the wheel.

Then, a month after he was awarded his PhD in 1993, Tom was killed in a car crash. He was such a special person and everyone who knew him was devastated. That made me realise how important this work truly was. I made the decision to dedicate my career to driver psychology – in honour of Tom and all those killed and injured on the roads.

How do you find being a woman in this profession? 

First of all, it’s pretty obvious when you look at the leaders in any university that women are under-represented – especially in the ‘old’ universities. I’ve seen how the all-male networks operate and it can be patronising and demeaning to women. I’ve felt pretty isolated at times.

However, when I joined the Human Factors Department at Cranfield University in 2001, I had the best boss in Professor Helen Muir. Helen encouraged me and recognised my achievements. She also supported my promotion to Associate Professor ten years ago.

I’ve risen to a fairly senior position in the university, but I haven’t reached the top in terms of professorship. My colleagues wonder at this, since I’ve achieved far more than many male colleagues who have made it to the top.

Luckily, promotion isn’t my chief motivation. My personal career seems like such a small thing, compared with the knowledge we’ve built around influencing driver behaviour. That’s all that really matters to me. I’ve never pushed for promotion, which I think is one of the reasons why men tend to get promoted over women. We’re often too busy just getting the job done.

Have attitudes towards you changed since you started? 

When I first started work as an academic, I regularly encountered sexism. There were the inevitable unwanted sexual advances, which I think every woman has to fend off at some point in her life.

But it was the small comments or actions that, over time, showed me there’s not a level playing field for women at work. More recently it’s become subtler, and behind closed doors. But the women leadership statistics are revealing and suggest that the gender gap will take a long time to close.

I started giving talks at driving instructor conferences in 2003. I would get up in front of a virtually all-male audience, with a male set of speakers (and me) to talk about my work.

It’s serious stuff; I would explain that teaching someone how to drive a car well doesn’t mean that they will use those skills to be a safe driver. This was backed up with solid research. In fact, I was the first person to bring the Goals for Driver Behaviour competency framework to the attention of the industry. It’s now the basis for many driver training programmes.

Do you know how I was received at those conferences? Well, first they ignored me, then they laughed at me, then they fought me and now there is a general acceptance of the things I’ve been saying for decades. That’s a pretty good summary of my career to date.

I believe you should always be sincere in what you do. Eventually people will understand that you’re just trying to make the world a better place in your own small way. For those who don’t understand, or who distort your motives – well, they often have deeper issues. Being a psychologist helps me to understand why people think that way!

What’s the best thing about your job?

No day is the same and every project is a new challenge. I’m involved in so many research programmes, sometimes it makes my head spin!

These are just some of the programmes my team and I are involved in:

  • We’re investigating how people’s attention is affected when they drive an autonomous car (a driverless car).
  • We’re developing in-vehicle driver coaching technology with motor manufacturers. That means technology that helps you to make the right decisions as you’re driving.
  • We have two major projects with Highways England on how to improve road safety on the motorways and major roads.
  • I’m Research Director for the Cranfield University company DriverMetrics. We’ve assessed and coached hundreds of thousands of drivers since I founded the company in 2004.
  • I’m also a co-founder of The Floow – a company that works internationally with leading insurers and motor manufacturers in telematics. This is when a driver has a device or smartphone in the car which records their driving activity – how, where and when they drive. The information is fed back and analysed, so we can get a picture of how safely that person is driving.
  • I know that my work has led to fewer people being killed and injured, and will go on to protect many thousands more. That gives me a real buzz.

How do you think we can encourage more women into driver research, or the driving industry?

Funding for road safety has always been difficult to find, but I’d like to encourage women to create their own opportunities, like I did. It was tough and there were times when I felt like giving up – especially after spending weeks working on something that failed to be funded. But I always learned something from the process and that helped me do a better job next time.

Now there are more careers available in driver psychology than ever before, especially with the development of driverless technology. There are so many opportunities opening up to investigate how people interact with this technology.

I hope there’s a young woman reading this right now who’ll make her mark doing research that leads to a zero-harm traffic system. I’m unlikely to see this in my career, but I’ll enjoy finding out about it from my rocking chair.

You can read more about Dr Lisa Dorn by visiting her page on the Cranfield University website.

And get yourself a copy of The Official DVSA Guide to Better Driving. This was written by Lisa and includes practical advice on how you can adjust your behaviour to become a better driver.