Distractology: The Science of Distracted Driving

Jo Caynon
wanderer.com

Last week, a traveling road safety awareness initiative called “Distractology” was at Old Rochester Regional Hight School. Run by Arbella Insurance Foundation, the interactive driving simulation allows student drivers to have a firsthand look at the true dangers of driving distracted.

“We run Distractology all across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire,” said Nick Romani Prpich, who was running the driving simulations for the students. “We ask the students to text, play music, take a photo, open a water bottle, and look for specific signs while in different simulations so they can see the outcomes of driving distracted.”

Students with a driver’s permit or license signed up for appointments throughout the school day to use one of two simulators in the Distractology trailer. They were seated in a car seat with a seatbelt and were surrounded by three monitors to represent the windshield and front seat windows, with the gas and brake pedals at their feet.

At the time, senior Tanner Figueiredo was in one of the simulation’s driver’s seats. Figueiredo was in a highway environment with a 55 mph limit and had been instructed to play music on his phone and then change the song. In the second it took to look down at the screen, he crashed into another ‘car.’

At the same time, junior Caroline Thomas was going 40 mph through small town scenery in the other simulator when a line of cars formed in the left lane. A van in front of her drove through a crosswalk without stopping, and she prepared to do the same while taking a photo. However, she hit a pedestrian that the other cars had stopped for.

In between different scenarios, the screens would display harrowing statistics about the dangerous consequences from distracted driving: “[Thirty-six percent] of teens say they have had near-accidents from distractions, 1 in 4 teens text and drive, over 5,000 accidents are caused by distracted driving every year.”

The simulation also explained what to properly do in each situation after the run was over. When Thomas was turning left and was hit by an oncoming car that had been obscured by a large truck blocking her view, the simulation explained the proper way to slowly approach so a driver can see before turning. She was also asked to play music on her phone on the highway scenario, and when trying to change the song, a car from the right lane merged into hers and she rear-ended it.

“I’m such a bad driver!” Thomas said, laughing in shock.

Some simulations also focused on defensive driving. While the simulator drivers weren’t in the wrong, a motorcycle blowing through a stop sign and hitting them served as a caution to always be on the lookout for other drivers.

The final run was in a small town community, not unlike the Tri-Town: there were woods, farms, and a pedestrian downtown area. Figuerido stayed at the proper 35 mph limit, not speeding, and made it through almost the entire run. Both he and Thomas tripped up on the left-hand turn, though, as another vehicle obstructed their view and they were hit by a second oncoming car.

“I learned a lot from this,” Figueiredo said in the aftermath.

“I thought I was a decent driver,” Thomas added. “I wish we did this simulation in Driver’s Education before we even start actually driving.”

For their participation, each student received a gas card, goodie bag, and the opportunity to go online and take a further challenge session to test their knowledge from the simulation.

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