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Distractology 101 Has Educated Over 10,000 New Drivers

According to the Westford Eagle, the interactive Distractology 101 program for teens and other new drivers visited Westford Academy on June 8 through 12. The Distractology driving simulator, based on research conducted at UMass Amherst, is currently travelling to various communities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island during the 2014-15 school year, offering 45 minutes of simulated distracted driving to each participant.

The “Distractology 101” program was originally designed by the UMass Amherst College of Engineering in conjunction with the Arbella Insurance Foundation. In the past, Distractology 101 has been featured on the Today Show, the Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers, TV shows, and websites. The Distractology 101 program brings a driving simulator to high schools across southern New England to teach students about the dangers of distracted driving, especially texting while driving. You can find out more about the Distractology 101 program and its touring schedule at www.DistractU.com.

Distractology 101 was designed by the college’s Arbella Human Performance Laboratory for the Arbella Insurance Group Charitable Foundation. Among other lessons, the program teaches novice drivers how to pay attention at the wheel and forgo using electronic devices. The creation of Distractology 101 was directed by Donald Fisher, retiring head of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and director of the Arbella Human Performance Laboratory.

Dr. Fisher said that his research shows that a novice driver is six times less likely to look for hidden hazards while driving than an experienced driver, and even less likely to be paying attention while texting or talking on the cell phone.

“We teach them with hands-on education about the dangers of texting and driving,” Distractology 101 program coordinator Danny Corcoran said.

The program puts kids through their paces on a driving simulator. When drivers navigate through this virtual driving world while texting on their cell phones, they inevitably crash. While distracted driving can be a problem for all drivers, younger people may have a harder time putting the phone down while behind the wheel, Corcoran said.

“We’re all millennials,” he said. “We’ve all been programmed with technology at our fingertips. When a phone beeps, we’re almost programmed to look at it.”

The centerpiece of the Distractology 101 program is a 36-foot trailer with two simulators that cost about $150,000 apiece. The trailer has been touring Massachusetts at stops organized by Arbella agents at schools, police stations, and other community gathering places. Novice drivers, in this case, are defined as fully licensed but with less than three years of road experience. The simulators, which each have a steering wheel, blinkers, gas and brake pedals, and a speedometer, take drivers through a half-dozen potentially dangerous scenarios on three wide-screen monitors. In one scenario, the drivers are told to read aloud a text message on their cellphones; in others their failure to notice a road sign or a hidden hazard can result in catastrophe. The simulator takes drivers down country roads, along curving suburban streets, and through an urban canyon lined with tall buildings.

Arbella teamed up with Fisher, who was studying distracted driving and ways to improve novice drivers’ attention, to implement the program for young drivers.

“What our research has done is to pinpoint the reasons distraction is creating the problems for the novice drivers that it is, and then develop training programs to reduce those problems,’’ Fisher has said to explain Distractology 101’s reason to be.