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Distractology 101 Covered by Globe and Channel 3

Stories about the safety course called Distractology 101, which uses a driving simulator to demonstrate the dangers of driving while texting or talking on cell phones, were run last week in the Boston Globe and on WSHM-TV 3. The technology for Distractology 101 was developed under the leadership of Donald Fisher, the head of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and the director of the Arbella Insurance Human Performance Laboratory. Fisher's lab created the Distractology program for the Arbella Insurance Group and its 36-foot touring trailer, which puts young drivers in lifelike driving simulators to show them the perils of distracted driving. The Globe story is reprinted below.

The flashy red Corvette glides down a divided, four-lane cityscape at about 35 miles per hour. The road is thick with stoplights, moving cars, parked cars, moseying pedestrians.

The cellphone on the dash suddenly buzzes; the young driver reaches for it, checking an incoming text. Then, eyes arrowing back and forth from the road to his phone clasped at wheel level, he punches in a reply.

Up ahead, a truck is stopped at a light. The Corvette’s driver continues texting, not noticing the truck until he’s almost on top of it. He brakes, but still rear-ends the truck with a crunch of metal and shattered glass.

Luckily, 18-year-old Kenny Codair isn’t operating a real car - and this isn’t a real crash. He’s seated at a simulation console as part of the mobile course Distractology 101, which gives new drivers near-real-life run-ins involving distractions and obstructions.

After his time in the virtual driver’s seat on the tour’s recent stop in Beverly, Codair, of Hampton, N.H., pronounced: “I won’t text [in the car] - no way.’’

It seems a lot like a video game. Participants sit at control panels mocked up like mini Corvettes with steering wheels, gas pedals, brakes, and giant screens in front of them. But the object here isn’t destruction, it’s distraction.

Quincy-based Arbella Insurance Group’s Distractology 101 teaches the dangers of “gabcidents’’ (the result of paying closer attention to a cellphone conversation than the road); “sender benders’’ (collisions that result when drivers are distracted by sending text messages); “snackcidents’’ (in-car eating being the culprit); and “spincidents’’ (what might happen to those who fiddle too much with the radio or an MP3 player instead of watching the highway).

“Young, inexperienced drivers don’t appreciate that literally one or two seconds of turning your eyes away can create a very dangerous circumstance,’’ said Arbella chief executive John Donohue.

Using technology developed by Donald Fisher, an engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the tour has traveled all over Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island since April 2010. The 36-foot-long, bright yellow trailer has been parked at roughly 50 locations - including high schools and police and fire stations - and approximately 2,600 youths have fastened their seat belts for 45-minute “DistractU’’ sessions.

Most recently, the tour came to Paul T. Murphy Insurance Agency in Malden and Appleby and Wyman Insurance Agency in Beverly. (August 2011)