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Public Health Students Present at SOPHE Conference on Nighttime Commuting Safety

Nighttime commuting safety

Research by Public Health graduates Ida Tovar and Alyssa Baer and Dr. Robbie Chaney showed differences in how men and women react to campus environments while walking at night.

College students frequently walk alone after dark on campus and often feel unsafe while doing it. Ida Tovar and Alyssa Baer, recent BYU Public Health graduates emphasizing in health promotion, presented research about night-time commuting safety at the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) national conference in April. Their research revealed the differences in how men and women react to their environments when commuting at night and how safe they feel in their environments.

The idea for the research, which was inspired by a similar study done in Europe in 2014, was to present images of areas of BYU, UVU, U of U, and Westminster College campuses to study participants and record how the participants reacted. The images featured well-lit areas in daytime and the same areas after dark. Images also included areas with high entrapment levels, which refers to closed spaces such as stairs and tunnels, and areas that had low entrapment levels such as open campus plaza areas. Tovar and Baer created a survey with the images and instructed 500 study participants to click on any elements in the images that stood out to them. With the data from the images, Tovar and Baer created heatmaps (which made the areas in the images brighter that were clicked more frequently) to evaluate the patterns in responses to the study.

They discovered that the heatmaps for the men and women were distinctively different. “They were noticing different things in their environments," Baer described. "The women were much more aware of the different features and settings around the path and the men most often selected the path itself.”

Tovar and Baer also gathered data using a Likert scale questionnaire about how the participants felt about their safety when looking at the photos. Tovar said, “The participants felt less safe in the high entrapment areas and less safe in the nighttime settings. And female participants, in particular, felt more unsafe in the high entrapment situations and also felt more unsafe in the nighttime situations.”

While Tovar and Baer did expect to see differences in the results along gender lines, seeing the reality of the differences in the heatmaps and the questionnaire was an almost startling experience for them. Tovar said, “We estimated what the results would be, but once we saw it I was very surprised. It put into perspective the things we hear about our environment as women.”

Tovar and Baer hope that their data can spark further conversations, questions, and research. Baer explained, “This stage of research prompts more questions. It shows us that there are differences and prompts future research to find out why those differences exist and what we can do to help people feel safer.”

Participating in the research project has been a meaningful opportunity for Tovar and Baer personally, and as they have shared their research they have discovered how meaningful it is to the BYU community as well. Baer said, “It was really amazing to have people reach out to us about the study and thank us for researching this. It was meaningful to us to see the need for this research and the support from the community.”

Tovar and Baer both expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to learn and develop as researchers under Dr. Robbie Chaney’s mentorship and for the opportunity to do the research through a fellowship from the BYU Honors Program and to present at the SOPHE conference.

One of the things they were most grateful to have learned through the research and while at BYU is that “asking questions is a great part of our public health experience as students and something that can really shape our education,” Tovar said. Baer added that “having the courage to ask questions can lead to opportunities for change in the community.”