Distractology simulation educates drivers about distracted driving

By Shelby Ashline

(Courtesy of Christine Williamson)
(Courtesy of Christine Williamson)

It’s a clear, sunny day as a young woman drives along the lakefront. She obeys the posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour, trailing an SUV along a curvy road. Then, she takes out her phone and begins to type out a text message, her eyes darting between road and screen.

While her attention is divided, the SUV in front of her comes to an abrupt halt. There’s no time to stop, nowhere to turn as she desperately slams on the breaks. But it is too late; the two cars collide and the young woman’s windshield shatters.

Flustered, she steps out of the simulator.

This scenario replayed over and over again on Monday as University of Massachusetts students tried out the Distractology program, a simulation intended to educate drivers on the dangers of distracted driving. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., two simulators were set up within a 36-foot-long mobile trailer parked outside the Student Union.

The simulation is based on years of research conducted by Professor Don Fisher of the department of mechanical and industrial engineering at UMass with funding from the Arbella Insurance Foundation. The simulation has proven to have a significant effect on drivers, as those who complete the 45-minute Distractology training are 19 percent less likely to have an accident and 25 percent less likely to get traffic violations, according to a UMass press release.

Fisher’s research on distracted driving first began back in 1995, when the National Science Foundation gave the University a $500,000 driving simulator.

“We used that driving simulator to evaluate training programs that are designed to reduce distraction and increase the likelihood that novice drivers would anticipate hazards,” Fisher explained.

Subjects received training using a computer program before moving up to the simulator, which tracks their eye movements “to determine whether or not their hazard anticipation skills and their attention maintenance skills are as good as they need to be,” Fisher said.

Arbella’s involvement in the Distractology program began about seven years ago, according to Arbella President Beverly Tangvik. The company noticed that “a lot of the accidents that were coming in were caused by distracted driving and specifically texting,” she said.

Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off of the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, according to the press release.

Driving at 55 miles per hour, this is the equivalent of driving the length of an entire football field while blindfolded.

Texting and other distractions have been factors in 58 percent of moderate to severe teen crashes, according to a 2015 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

In hopes of getting “in front of this new issue before it gets out of control” and because of Arbella’s commitment to making young drivers safer, according to Tangvik, Arbella reached out to Fisher and offered to sponsor the program.

“It was their idea to put it in a trailer, to have two simulators there and actually to bring that around to the various different high schools in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Fisher said.

Tangvik and Fisher said that the simulators travel to a different city or town high school each week, as they have been for the past five years and will continue to do for at least another five years to come. To date, more than 11,000 new drivers – meaning those that have been licensed less than three years or have a learner’s permit – have completed the training.

According to Fisher, the simulators have also come to the University before, when the touring first began.

By noon on Monday, four hours after the simulation opened in front of the Student Union, operators in charge of the mobile unit estimated that at least 40 students had tried out the simulation.

“Everyone is surprised,” said Tangvik describing student reactions. “They think they can text, they can look down and up, and up and down, but it doesn’t work.”

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Shelby_Ashline.