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Center for Research on Families Selects Roberts for Its 2018-2019 Family Research Scholars Program

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts

Assistant Professor Shannon Roberts of our Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department has been selected by the UMass Amherst Center for Research on Families (CRF) for the 2018-2019 CRF Family Research Scholars Program, which will provide funding to release Roberts from teaching one of her courses over the next year, among other benefits. Roberts’ CRF proposal is entitled “Studying and Mitigating Socioeconomic Inequalities in Teenage Driving.”

“Congratulations!” read the acceptance letter from Maureen Perry-Jenkins, Ph.D., the director of the CRF and a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “Your proposed project…is tremendously important and relevant to CRF's mission. This year, the CRF had outstanding proposals for the program with applications submitted from across campus. We are thrilled about your selection for this program.”

CRF's mission is to: use proven and innovative methods to promote, conduct, and translate high-quality, substantive research; teach, mentor, and support family researchers throughout their careers—students to professors; engage with the community to improve family functioning and inform social policy.

The reasoning behind Roberts’ research project is based on some very disturbing statistics related to the socioeconomic status of teenage drivers. Traffic-related crashes resulted in 2,535 fatalities and 262,637 injuries amongst teenagers in 2015, making such accidents the number one cause of death among teens. In this context, teenagers of low socioeconomic status not only have more of a crash risk than teenagers from more economically advantaged backgrounds, but the number of traffic fatalities among those who are economically disadvantaged has mushroomed over the years.

The overall objective of Roberts’ CRF research is to evaluate the effects of socioeconomic status on teenage driving behavior and promote safer driving through a community intervention program. The hypothesis is that teenagers with low socioeconomic status will exhibit riskier driving behaviors than their counterparts with higher socioeconomic status, but an intervention program that incorporates community involvement should reduce the frequency of these risky driving behaviors.

“Unlike past research,” comments Roberts, “this proposed research will focus solely on those teenage drivers who are the most vulnerable to traffic crashes due to their socioeconomic status. This is important because only by understanding these differences in behaviors can one design an appropriate intervention that benefits low socioeconomic status teenage drivers.”

Roberts points out that socioeconomic background is virtually ignored in all teenage driving research, yet socioeconomic status is one of the most important demographic variables in terms of crash risk. In fact, teenagers having a low socioeconomic status have a fatal crash rate that is nearly double the crash rate of teenagers from a more socioeconomically advantaged background.

Additionally, teenagers of low socioeconomic status are less likely to have access to a vehicle, are more likely to drive without a license, and are more likely to delay their licensure until adulthood. And yet studies to improve teenage driving behavior have primarily been conducted with families from middle to high socioeconomic status brackets.

“Given the lack of research concerning the driving behaviors of low socioeconomic status teenagers,” explains Roberts, “the findings of this proposed research have wide-ranging implications, as they will generate an understanding of how socioeconomic status influences teenagers’ behavior in the vehicle, not just statistics concerning crash rates by socioeconomic status. Additionally, the information gleaned from this proposed research can be used to establish new guidelines concerning teenage driver education.”

As a Family Research Scholar, Roberts will be funded by CRF for release from one course during the next year. CRF also anticipates that Roberts will submit at least one major research grant application no later than the end of the semester following the end of her participation in the Family Research Scholars Program in January of 2020.

In addition, Roberts will participate in a year-long interdisciplinary seminar facilitated by Professor Perry- Jenkins and Dr. Holly Laws, the Director of CRF’s Methodology Program.
According to its website, “CRF is among only a handful of family research centers in the country aimed at bridging the social, behavioral, and natural sciences. Thus, we are uniquely poised to initiate and support interdisciplinary collaborations aimed at addressing societal and family challenges.” (March 2018)