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Mt. Pleasant native earns research project recognition

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Despite numerous warnings and public advertising campaigns, younger people still do not take the danger of texting while driving seriously, according to Kristen A. Soforic, who has done research on the topic.

“I think people, especially younger people, still do it all the time,” said Soforic, 21, a native of Mt. Pleasant Borough. “I think, in general, everybody knows that you shouldn't, but people tend to do it anyway.”

Such a belief is based on Soforic's contribution to a research project at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., where she is a senior.

The project — titled “The Effect of Induced Hypocrisy on Texting While Driving” — was recently accepted for presentation at the Association for Psychological Science's 25th annual convention to be held May 23-26 in Washington, D.C.

“It (The project) is essentially about the idea of not practicing what you preach — knowing that texting while driving is wrong and can be dangerous, and doing it anyway,” Soforic said.

The project was also accepted for presentation at the 2013 Midwestern Psychological Association Conference in May in Chicago.

It also won the Midwestern regional research award from Psi Chi — the international honor society for psychology.

“It's both a surprise and an honor to have our work recognized,” Soforic said.

In taking on the project, Soforic collaborated over the past year with North Central graduate Nicholas J. Petkunas and Heather M. Coon, a professor of psychology at the college, to further a study previously initiated by Petkunas and North Central student Randi L. Purcell.

“It was a collaborative endeavor between the three of us, and that sense of collaboration is common in research projects in psychology,” Coon said. “Kristen is one of the most impressive students I've known at North Central, especially in how she thinks about research questions.”

In the initial study done by Petkunas and Purcell, experimenters approached participants posing as interns with the Illinois Department of Highway Safety, Soforic said.

Half of the participants were asked to complete a questionnaire detailing their texting-while-driving behaviors. The other half was merely quizzed on the state's texting-while-driving laws.

Participants then were given a flyer denouncing the practice of texting while driving to be posted publicly.

The flyer included a pledge to refrain from texting while driving, which half of the participants were asked to sign.

The other half of the participants were asked only to critique the design of the flyer to improve marketing effectiveness.

The first study ultimately found that those participants who were asked to recollect their own texting-while-driving acts and sign the pledge to refrain from the activity were no more willing to post the flyers than those not subjected to those manipulations, Soforic said.

In the second study, which involved Soforic, experimenters posed as representatives of a safe-driving campaign sponsored by their college and local school district with the goal of educating teenage drivers about the dangers of texting while driving and recruiting college-aged role models.

A questionnaire was dispensed in which half of participants answered questions about their own texting-while-driving behavior while the other half answered questions about the perceptions of the general public's texting-while-driving habits.

All participants then designed an anti-texting-while-driving flyer to be posted in a high school, but half wrote and signed a pledge to stop texting while driving on the flyer while half did not.

Participants then responded to a final questionnaire which assessed their perceptions of the importance of decreasing texting while driving, as well as their willingness to advocate against texting while driving by mentoring high school students and participating in panels about its dangers.

“We still didn't find that those in the hypocrisy condition wanted to advocate against texting while driving the most or see it as more dangerous than participants in other conditions,” Soforic said. “But we found that people were much more inclined to conclude that texting while driving was dangerous and were committed to stop.”

One thing both studies conveyed was that those who text while driving are 23 times more likely to crash than those who do not.

Soforic began taking classes at North Central College in 2008 while she was being home-schooled. Now a member of the college's honors program on campus, she said she has decided to reapply the study this spring as a means of completing her senior thesis.

“We would hope this kind of research would be used for an intervention program down the road,” Soforic said. “There are ways you can translate the results of studies like this into intervention programs for high schools and governmental agencies.”

A statewide ban on texting while driving in Pennsylvania took effect in March 2012. Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill into law in November 2011, making texting while driving a primary offense, which allows police officers to pull over drivers they see violating the law. It carries a potential $50 fine.

The law bans sending, reading or writing a text message from a wireless phone, personal digital assistant, smartphone, portable or mobile computer or similar device.

State police can enforce the law by observation, interviewing drivers and passengers, and in cases where needed, obtaining a driver's cell phone records.

Soforic is the daughter of John and Patti Soforic and the granddaughter of Joseph and Audrey Soforic, all of Mt. Pleasant. Robert and Agnes Flynn of Naperville, Ill., are also her grandparents.

“She's a very hard-working student, and we're very proud of her,” Patti Soforic said.

A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or

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