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Communication studies students promote law enforcement motor vehicle safety

With motor vehicle incidents as a leading cause of on-the-job police officer deaths, communication studies students at West Virginia University put their skills to work to develop and test motor vehicle safety messages with law enforcement officers across the nation.  

In partnership with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 12 undergraduate students in Advanced Health Communication and six graduate students in Health Communication Dissemination used their coursework to promote law enforcement motor vehicle safety awareness this spring. 

Sydney Webb
Sydney Webb

“There’s not a whole lot out there in terms of health messaging for law enforcement that is specific to motor vehicle safety. There is a lot of messaging about guns and hand combat, which overshadows motor vehicle safety,” said Sydney Webb, a health communication specialist at NIOSH who initiated the partnership. “How do we create a message that will resonate with law enforcement? How do we get this message to law enforcement? How do we change behavior to keep law enforcement safe on the job? That’s what this project is all about.”  

Throughout the spring 2017 semester, the students used communication theory to develop messages about safe motor vehicle practices, including speeding, seatbelt use, distracted driving and stress management. They tested their messages in a national survey of law enforcement officers as well as through in-depth interviews with Morgantown-area law enforcement leaders.  

Ji Young Lee
Ji Young Lee

“Through this research, we were able to understand if the messages were clear and effective to change law enforcement officers’ attitudes toward and behavior in regard to the four driving topics,” said Ji Young Lee, a former assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies who taught the health communication courses. “Our research also gave us insight into police officer perceptions of safe driving practices as well as their unique organizational cultures. These findings allowed us to adapt the safety messages we presented to NIOSH.  

NIOSH intends to use the students’ communication research findings to further refine messages and prepare a law enforcement motor vehicle safety toolkit for small and medium-sized police departments across the country. The toolkit is anticipated to be available this fall.

“We have a growing number of health communication projects, and engaging students to use their coursework to solve a communication problem is a win-win for NIOSH and the students,” Webb said. “The students’ research and application of health communication practices allows us to enhance our materials to better meet the needs of our intended audiences.”

Since taking the course, communication theory and research master’s student Matthew Thomas has broadened his career goals to include occupational safety and strategic health communication.  

“I enjoyed seeing how social science and health communication fits into the bigger picture within a government agency. I learned firsthand how health communication campaigns are developed, created and tested,” Thomas said. “I hope to pursue a career that allows me to use communication to foster positive social change and apply the skills I learned in my graduate coursework.”

Webb, who graduated from WVU’s communication theory and research doctoral program in 2012, hopes to partner with WVU health communication courses in future semesters.

“As a student who was in the class and now having worked with the class, to me it’s all about being able to apply the theories and skills you learned as part of your communication studies education to different situations,” Webb said. “I’ve gained so much through the communication studies program that it is an absolute pleasure to work with the students and provide them with an opportunity to apply their knowledge—I guess you could say it’s my way of giving back to my alma mater.”