Driving simulation teaches new drivers consequences of driving while distracted

The orange Distractology trailer was parked in the front of the senior parking lot, and inside two students sat in driver’s seats at what looked like a car racing game at a video arcade. Each one had its own gas pedal, brake, steering wheel and large screen with a view of the road ahead.

The 45-minute driving simulation was more serious, though, teaching newly licensed drivers and those with learner’s permits how texting and other distractions dangerously impact their driving.

“Kids are easily distracted behind the wheel with the radio, food and cell phones,” said Whittier’s Resource Officer Jamie Landry, who brought the distracted driving program to the high school. “This program shows them what can happen in a split second if they’re not paying attention.”

During one scenario the speed limit was 35 with no distractions, but students missed the significance of the crosswalk sign. As they drove in the right lane on a four lane road, they slowed as they noticed cars and a tractor trailer in the lanes beside them were stopped. But the students did not stop and hit a boy who was walking his dog across the crosswalk. A loud crash made both students jump, and their windshields appeared shattered in front of them.

“It was very accurate about what can quickly come without you noticing,” said Chloe Magee, a junior from Groveland who got her license in November. “I’m going to pay more attention to things around me.” She said she signed up for the program because she had rear ended another driver while changing the radio station a few months after getting her license.

Eighty Whittier students signed up to participate during the week of March 5th, and two snow days cut short the number of students who could attend to 60. The popular program, launched  by Arbella Insurance Charitable Foundation nine years ago, visits 34 New England high schools each year and has a long waiting list.

It took four years for it to arrive at Whittier. Fred C. Church Insurance of Haverhill sponsored the event so there was no cost to the school.

Distractology features several simulations, all designed to raise participants’ awareness of the many distractions that can crop up while driving — distractions that cause 400,000 accidents annually, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Students encounter obstructed intersections, changes in speed, and other distracted drivers. Most telling were the scenarios in which students were told to text on their phone or change radio stations while continuing to drive, often at simulated speeds of 55 miles per hour.

“They would swerve or go off the road,”said Officer Landry.

Sarah Tashjian, a junior from Haverhill, said, “It was eye-opening that I couldn’t multitask and drive. I kept crashing and hitting things. The biggest challenge was trying to use Snapchat, which she admits she does while driving, but “at red lights only.”

Allison O’Connor, a junior from West Newbury who has her learner’s permit, also crashed more than once during the simulation. “It was kind of scary,” she said. “Crashes can happen so easily. I didn’t see the sign, Pedestrian Crossing or the stop sign ahead.”

Students who participated received a $15 gas card and the opportunity to follow up with a short quiz online that could reduce their car insurance.

According to data collected by insurance companies, drivers who have completed Distractology are proven to be 19 percent less likely to have an accident and 25 percent less likely to receive traffic violations. Teens have the highest crash rate of any group in the United States.

A 2015 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that distraction was a factor in nearly six out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes. Of the teens surveyed, 40 percent said they have been in a car when the driver used a cellphone in a way that put people in danger. Sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent-at 55 mph-of driving the length of an entire football field, blind.

Some students expressed confidence as they walked out to the trailer, Officer Landry said, but once they finished the program admitted that they had crashed, some of them numerous times.



Whittier Tech