Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Distractology 101: Arbella Insurance donates new driving research facility to UM

By Sam Butterfield

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As winter weather and the prospect of slick, icy roads converge on Amherst, imagine you are driving down one of the Pioneer Valley’s many steep, hilly, roads. You lose control, skid out and everything is a blurry flash. Fortunately for you, this situation is not real; it is only a part of the newly-dedicated Arbella Insurance Group Charitable Foundation Human Performance Laboratory, a research center which will focus on driving risks to be housed in the College of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts.

This Friday, the College and Arbella representatives will host a ribbon cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. in room 110 of the Engineering Lab building. The lab’s new name is a result of Arbella’s recent $150,000 gift to the University.

The lab’s leadership, according to a Monday release from UMass’ Office of News and Media Relations, will start with Donald Fisher, head of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. The lab will analyze potential risk factors which may play roles in driving dangers for new and old rivers and will work to create simulated learning exercises instructing drivers on how to avoid behaviors which could contribute to crashes. According to the release, the Quincy, Mass., based Arbella, the state’s third-largest insurer, has already sponsored some of Dr. Fisher’s work on distracted driving. Fisher and his colleagues have, with Arbella’s aid, created a computer simulation program called “Distractology 101,” which covers various scenarios distracted drivers can encounter.

According to News and Media Relations Office figures, distracted driving causes “an estimated 1.6 million crashes and 6,000 deaths each year.” Further, numbers from the News Office indicate that “people who text while driving are 23 percent more likely to be in a crash or barely avoid one,” and that “studies have even shown that driving while distracted is equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol level of .08.”

At the Friday ceremony, visitors will have the chance to get distracted in the “distractology” simulator, experiencing a full range of potentially distracting dilemmas in Arbella’s 36-foot classroom, which will tour communities across New England for the next three years, according to the release. In the simulation, novice drivers are thrust into a litany of potentially-distracting encounters and conditions meant to replicate real-world situations.

In the release, Arbella CEO John Donohue said his company realized in recent years that distracted driving is a burgeoning, potentially devastating problem, and that he felt Fisher and his team’s work was ahead of the curve in teaching drivers young and old about the potential dangers of such behaviors.

“Two years ago, I learned about Dr. Don Fisher and his research on distracted driving,” he said. “It became clear to me that distracted driving is becoming an epidemic in our country. We’re proud to make this gift and to continue our strong partnership with UMass Amherst, in the hopes of changing behaviors behind the wheel.”

Fisher said he hopes the lab will help reduce the number of automobile accidents, injuries and deaths.

“The lab’s objectives can generally be summarized as research to reduce driving crashes, injuries and fatalities,” he said.

According to the release, the lab will be available for a variety of uses, and will be open to faculty, graduate students and undergrads. The lab’s materials, valued at over $1 million, according to the release, include “two state-of-the-art driving simulators, driving simulator software and advanced eye trackers.”

Arbella Insurance Group Charitable Foundation, the charitable wing of the business, was founded in 2004 and seeks to “engage in activities and to support not-for-profit organizations that have a significant positive impact on the people and communities served by Arbella,” according to the release. Arbella was founded in 1988 and provides insurance in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

Sam Butterfield can be reached at [email protected]

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