Psychology whiz made driving safer




24-9-1938 - 7-9-2012

PROFESSOR Tom Triggs, when asked socially about his subject area, would usually say "psychology", but that was only part of the story. In a long career as a researcher, teacher, mentor and administrator who came to psychology from a distinguished academic background in aeronautical engineering, Tom left a legacy of work that illustrates the application of human perception, information processing, and decision making to areas such as automobile design, aircraft navigation, occupational safety in transportation, young driver training and assessment, and healthcare.

Tom, who has died at the age of 73, was born in the Sydney suburb of Strathfield in 1938, his father Reg being a staunch Labor man who became secretary of the Shire and Municipal Employees Union and chairman of the Sydney County Council. Tom was educated at St Patrick's College, Strathfield, New South Wales, where he studied maths and science, played tennis, sang in the choir, developed a lifelong love of classical music, and graduated dux of the college.

At Sydney University, Tom topped his class in aeronautical engineering and was on course to study wind tunnels when he developed a mutual rapport with Dr (later Professor) Ross Day from the university's psychology department, who "took him to the stacks" (as Tom described it, where "the stacks" is Sydney University parlance for "the library"). The transforming stimulus was an article in the 1952 Journal of Applied Psychology, and Tom was set on an inspired path towards human factors, or ergonomics.

At Sydney University, Tom completed a BSc (mathematics), BE (aeronautical engineering) with first-class honours, and a master of engineering science. Having been awarded a Fulbright scholarship and a Ford International fellowship, he began his studies at the University of Michigan in 1962 where he earned an MA and PhD in engineering psychology.

On completion of his postgraduate studies, Tom worked initially at the Hughes Aircraft Company in Los Angeles and then as manager of the experimental psychology department of Bolt Beranek and Newman, a high-technology research and development company in Boston. While in Boston he married his lifelong partner, Tele.

In 1973, after 11 years in the US, Australia beckoned and Tom was recruited by Professor Ross Day, the founding head of Monash University's department of psychology, and Professor Ron Cumming, who shared Tom's background and interest in human factors. Thus began nearly four decades of Tom's association with Monash, which he maintained during four periods of leave when he engaged in work in the US.

In one such period (1988-91), he was director of the Battelle Human Factors and Organisational Effectiveness Research Centre in Seattle where he was involved in research on human performance and information processing in applied settings such as power-plant control rooms, aviation and defence environments, as well as more basic research on performance. From Seattle he returned to Monash as professor of psychology and served as head of department from 1993 to 1995.

In addition to his role in the psychology department, Tom established the Monash University Accident Research Centre and served as its deputy director for 13 years (1991-2004). At MUARC, Tom pioneered Australian driver simulation research. In the 1990s he was project manager on the large young-driver research program, funded by the federal government's Road Safety Initiative, which led to the development of DriveSmart, the widely used PC-based program for developing higher-order cognitive skills in young drivers, and the subsequent large-scale evaluation program.

In the words of Lauchlan McIntosh, president of the Australasian College of Road Safety, "Tom was recognised as one of Australia's most eminent and innovative leaders in his efforts to reduce road crashes . . . His contribution made driving safer, not only in Australia, but internationally."

Tom published widely, and over the years took a significant role on editorial boards of Human Factors, Applied Ergonomics, Safety Science, and International Review of Ergonomics. His reputation as a researcher on young drivers led to invitations to deliver keynote speeches at conferences around the world.

Tom possessed many gifts, one of which was an ability to touch and enhance the lives of others. Just as Tom had been led towards a passionate commitment to human factors by Ross Day, he in turn handed the baton on to his many students. And he led and inspired others in every avenue of his life - as a lecturer, scientist, colleague and friend. Comments from many who knew him give testimony to this.

His head of department considered Tom "one of the finest academics" he had known: "He was so good with students, and they flocked around him." One of his students recalled the clarity of Tom's lectures: "Statistics became my favourite subject." Another said: "He had an incredible ability to empower his students to excel. He knew what his students needed from him to succeed, and he would provide that support with gentleness and unwavering patience."

Tom's graduate seminar in decision making and human performance, too, was seen as a major contribution to the psychology department. Held weekly on Thursday afternoons, these sessions attracted participants from across the university. "Tom's seminars were the highlight of my academic life," said one colleague. "Partly it was the subject matter, partly the people involved, but largely the opening of the mind to a fascination with aspects of human behaviour. Tom's seminar series changed the way I thought about and understood the world."

Another said of him: "He was a great scholar, but the finest and most salient picture I have of him is that he was a gentleman in the true sense of the word, with a wicked humour." And another: "He was also a mentor and friend to many in the profession, and by association with him, many of us have profited from his intellect and his humanity . . . I will miss him, terribly."

The accolades showered on Tom attest to the influence of his scientific and professional contributions around the world. Over and above these, however, he will be remembered most dearly for his life as husband and father. In every respect Tom was a wonderful family man. His devotion to his wife Tele was absolute, and his love for their daughters Sumi and Maya was all-embracing.

Upon age-determined retirement, Tom became an emeritus professor and continued to work with determination, courage and dignity, accepting new challenges until the very late stages of his 14-year illness with haematological cancer. When asked by Tele what had driven him, his answer was: "I wanted to make a difference."

He truly did.

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