The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Today Show Covers MIE’s Distractology 101

Work done by the college’s Human Performance Laboratory for the Arbella Insurance Group Charitable Foundation, a program called Distractology 101 that teaches novice drivers how to pay attention at the wheel and forgo using electronic devices, was featured on the Today Show. The creation of Distractology 101 was directed by Donald Fisher, head of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and director of the Human Performance Laboratory. Like many of today’s problems, driving while texting or phoning was foreshadowed more than 150 years ago in Walden, when Henry David Thoreau wrote that “We have become the tools of our tools.”

Dr. Fisher says 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.

The Today coverage came close on the heels of similar coverage by the Boston Globe and Channel WCVB 5 in Boston. According to the recent article in the Globe, The centerpiece of the Distractology 101 program is a 36-foot trailer with two simulators that cost about $150,000 apiece. Arbella said the trailer will tour Massachusetts for the next three years at stops organized by Arbella agents at schools, police stations, and other community gathering places. Novice drivers — fully licensed but with less than three years of road experience — get a $15 gas card just for driving the simulations, and a small percentage of adult novice drivers will also be invited to participate. Parents and teens can find a schedule of tour stops on the Distractology 101 program’s website,

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 for years has been 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 said. (May 2010)