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Students Get Crash Course in Distracted Driving

Jim Levulis
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
The mobile classroom travels across New England to educate young drivers about the dangers of distracted driving.

Students at Lee High School in Massachusetts are receiving a crash course in the dangers of texting and driving this week.

Two drivers’ seats each with three television screens and a steering wheel are encased in the hard to miss 36-foot-long neon yellow trailer parked in the Lee High School parking lot. Working with the Distractology 101 simulator Robert Bliss has traveled to Connecticut, Rhode Island and all over Massachusetts teaching young drivers about the consequences of distracted driving.

“There is a new generation coming up that is very connected and very technology-savvy; more so than we’ve seen in past generations,” Bliss said. “We’re trying to catch them young before they can get themselves into trouble.”

Arbella Insurance Foundation partnered with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to develop the program, which more than 5,000 drivers have completed in about four years. Arbella partners with local insurance companies, like Toole Insurance Agency in Lee, to bring the mobile classroom to schools. The course includes voice instructions and tips after participants complete levels, safely or not. In between levels, the arcade-like screens are taken over by startling facts pointing out how deadly distracted driving can be.

"So if you're texting, snacking or yacking as you're driving down the road, don't," the computer urges. "You could wind up in more than a sender-bender."

More than 3,000 people are killed and an estimated 416,000 are injured each year in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Even with those figures, the administration estimates more than 800,000 drivers are using a handheld cell phone at any given moment. While the program targets drivers with less than three years of experience, Bliss says taking your eyes off the road can be tragic for anyone.

“If you have three seconds to stop for the guy in front of you and you’re texting for 2.3 seconds, you have 0.7 seconds left,” Bliss explained. “Plus your reaction time which is about 0.3 seconds. So you’re at 0.4 seconds. By the time you look up from the phone to the road that car is already right there. So you’re going to crash and there is not much you can do about it. So you have to put the phone down because you never know when this is going to happen. The decision to crash here wasn’t necessarily made when you looked from the phone to the screen. The decision to crash was made when you picked up the phone in the first place, you just didn’t know it.”

Lee junior Sam Farina has her permit. She was only able to read the first two words, “Hey Sam,” in a text from her friend Alyssa before crashing in the simulator.

“Sometimes you just want to send a quick message, but that second can cause someone’s life or your life,” said Farina afterwards.

States have cracked down on drivers using cell phones, with some in the Northeast passing the strictest laws on the books. New York and Connecticut have banned handheld use for all drivers, while Massachusetts and Vermont have banned drivers under 18 from using their cell phones altogether. All four states have banned texting regardless of age. State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of the Fourth Berkshire District took a spin on the simulator and says he crashed within 30 seconds.

“You can have some of the toughest laws on the books, which I think Massachusetts has some very strict laws, especially with juvenile drivers, but it comes down to enforcement,” Pignatelli said. “The police officer is actually going to have to catch you in the act.”

If students complete additional online training, they have the opportunity to receive an insurance rate reduction, depending on their carrier.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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