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Salem News Covers Distractology 101

On July 12, the Salem News published a well-written feature story on the Distractology 101 driving simulator, a program to train inexperienced drivers about the perils of distracted driving. Distractology 101, housed in a 36-foot-long trailer, is a collaboration between our recently renamed Arbella Insurance Human Performance Laboratory and the Arbella Insurance Company. Our laboratory developed the Distractology program under the leadership of Don Fisher, its director and the head of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department. The Arbella trailer continues to tour the Commonwealth, attracting long lines of young drivers anxious to try their hand at the six driving simulations in Distractology 101.

The simulations resemble entertaining computer games, but deliver a very serious lesson about paying attention while driving.

Over the past year, the touring Distractology 101 trailer and the Human Performance Laboratory have been covered far and wide by such media as the Today Show, the Boston Globe, and most of the major news media in Western Massachusetts.

Dr. Fisher says 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.

The Salem News article is posted below:

It may be just a simulation, but your heart still races when you're staring down a pair of glowing brake lights ahead of you and there's no time to stop.

The crashing noise and broken windshield aren't real, but for a split second you can't help but brace for impact.

That scene has played out over and over at the Distractology 101 driving simulator, where inexperienced drivers are asked to text and drive and undergo a slew of other challenges, all while trying to avoid the pedestrians, awful drivers and blind corners that inhabit this computerized world.

The results are eye-opening. Even an experienced driver can slam into the back of a stationary pickup truck while going 50 mph in a 35 mph zone.

"In general, I like it when they crash, because it provides a good chance to teach them what not to do," said Topher Paone, who has been manning the Distractology trailer traveling from town to town since March.

The Distractology 101 simulator is at Appleby & Wyman Insurance Agency in Beverly all this week, and new drivers can sign up for the 45-minute training for free. At the end, they'll get a $15 gas card and a certificate of completion that could result in some savings in their car insurance premiums.

The simulator, which is inside a modified, 36-foot-long horse trailer, was developed by the University of Massachusetts in collaboration with Arbella Insurance. It consists of three screens, two side mirrors, a rearview mirror and everything you'd have in your car, including blinkers, a horn and even a seat belt. It simulates driving on congested city streets, as well as rural country roads.

The six simulations — two involve texting — are designed to teach defensive driving. Pedestrians pop out of nowhere. There are blind corners, obstructed traffic and bad drivers. And it wraps up with a longer simulation that encompasses everything you've learned.

By the end, after several wrecks, most students are much more cautious, creeping around corners and crawling through intersections.

"The last scenario could be done in six minutes, but for most it takes at least eight or 10," Paone said.

"It was much harder than I thought it would be," said Haley Sciola, 20, of Beverly. Sciola crashed a few times and once slammed into a woman who walked out from behind a car.

"I'd rather you do that here, where she can still walk across the screen in the next simulation," Paone said, smiling.

Sciola, like most of the other drivers, also crashed during both of the texting exercises, when the driver in front of her hit the brakes. She says she rarely texts and drives, and few drivers Paone sees actually admit to ever doing it, he said. Some, however, see the simulation as a challenge.

For the first time in history, many drivers now getting their licenses practically grew up with a cellphone in their hand and getting them to put it away when they hit the road is a big challenge. Paone has seen plenty of teens who come into the simulation who think they're good at driving and texting. The vast majority, however, crash.

"Some squeak by and don't crash, but they go over the double yellow lines, they swerve into oncoming traffic or pass on the right. Those are all illegal things," Paone said. "I thought (the message) definitely came across for quite a few of them. They say they'll slow down and lock their phone in the glove box while driving."

There were plenty of car crashes going on inside the trailer in Beverly yesterday. Practically before 17-year-old Jarrod MaCullar even began texting, he slammed into the back of the car in front of him.

"They try to scare you with some random scenarios and say if you are texting this might happen," said MaCullar, who said he does not text and drive.

Admittedly, many of the drivers in this simulated world are pretty bad. "But there are a lot of dumb drivers in the real world," MaCullar said.

All of the drivers who come in to tackle the simulators have had their license for less than three years. Many come at the behest of their parents.

"I know how expensive it can be with the violations and accidents," said Doug Reynolds, an insurance agent whose son Michael, 17, spent a little time in the simulator yesterday morning. "My son's paying for his share of the (car) insurance, and he knows it's expensive and how quickly it can go up after an accident."

Fortunately, Michael's driving record is spotless — he's only been driving a month — but not exactly in the simulator. Like everyone else, he crashed a few times.

"Braking was tough, and there were some points I definitely wasn't ready for it," he said.

At least, it's a crash that won't hike his premiums and didn't hurt a bit. But he got the message loud and clear: Don't text and drive.

"You might get away with it sometimes," Paone cautioned everyone yesterday, "but there will be that one time when you don't." (July 2011)