High school students spent the week before prom preparing their hair, outfits, and rides — and their driving skills. From May 9 to 13, Distractology 101: A Crash Course on Distracted Driving was offered in a mobile classroom with driving simulators outside the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Mone Insurance Agency in Vineyard Haven brought the program to the Island.
“These days, there are so many more distractions that affect both new and experienced drivers,” said Gayle Mone, who co-owns Mone Insurance with her husband, Bob. “Driving simulators show the reality of the consequences of not paying attention while driving before they see them in real life.” After losing their son, Ryan, in a car accident in 1998, the Mones have been constantly looking for ways to help teach drivers how to stay safe on the road. When they heard about the course, they checked with MVRHS Principal Steve Nixon and booked the high school for the week before the prom, a night notorious for student-packed cars and worried parents.
Distractology is sponsored by The Arbella Insurance Group Charitable Foundation, Inc. Arbella is one of several carriers represented by Mone Insurance. The two-part course, which was created through research on distracted driving at UMass Amherst’s College of Engineering, uses driving simulators to teach drivers about avoiding accidents and unsafe behavior behind the wheel of a car, and offers an online reinforcement training to test the lessons taught by the simulator.
Open to anyone with a license or permit, Distractology is currently in the second of a three-year study period in which Arbella brings a mobile classroom with two driving simulators to towns around Massachusetts. The simulators consist of driver seats and seat belts, steering wheels, brake and gas pedals, lights, and three computer screens working as the front and side windows, as well as the side and rearview mirrors.
The screens display computerized views of hazardous driving situations and little-known facts about distractions after the completion of each scenario. The 45-minute long course consists of 8 driving scenarios containing unexpected obstacles such as mopeds running red lights and unseen pedestrians crossing the street from behind a neighboring car. Throughout the already difficult course, music plays through speakers in the seats and the course instructor asks for an answer via cell phone to a text-messaged questions such as, “What is your favorite school subject and why?” and, “Where will you go to college, and what will you study?”
In order to encourage students to sign up, Arbella offered $15 gas cards and the possibility of discounted insurance to anyone who took the course. By the time the courses began on Monday, each of the 18 slots between 8:00 a.m and 3:30 p.m were filled for each of the five days and a waiting list had to be generated. Yet most of the students left the course with more than just gas money.
“I drive a Suburban, so I signed up for the $15,” said Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School senior Jess Dupon, who has had her license for a year. “Also, I thought it would be fun to drive a simulator. But I was surprised by how much you aren’t in control when driving. I’ll admit that I’ve done it [text while driving], but after using the simulator and realizing how much of an impact two seconds can have, I’ll think twice before picking up my phone.”
While Distractology focuses mainly on the dangers of mobile phone use, the course provided other challenges for Martha’s Vineyard students, many of whom have had little to no experience with off-Island driving. “I had never been anywhere with no multi-lane roads or traffic lights,” instructor Topher Paone said. “The average of crashes during the course did rise after coming to the Vineyard because it simply isn’t made for Island kids.”
The Mones hope to prevent these problems by placing more emphasis on the simulators already available at MVRHS. “Driver’s Ed is so important, but lectures aren’t going to grab the attention of high school kids,” Ms. Mone said.
“The simulator made me nervous because it was so different from driving an actual car, but it was very helpful because it presented me with driving situations that we don’t really experience here on the Island,” said MVRHS junior Haley Hewson, who received her license on May 11. “I was surprised by some of the rules and techniques that I had to use. I feel like I learned a lot in Driver’s Ed, but this was a nice refresher. I’ve been much more careful going around corners and looking for pedestrians and bikers.”
Camila Fernandez, a senior at MVRHS who has had her license for seven months, said, “When I was asked to answer a text, I honestly was not able to type more than three or four letters before crashing. I used to try not to text and drive, but my phone was always next to me and I was constantly checking the time or to see if I had received any texts. Now, it is nowhere near me.”
More information about the course can be found at www.distractu.com.