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With simulator, Easthampton students learn about the dangers of distracted driving



Wednesday, November 25, 2015
EASTHAMPTON — As Easthampton students sat down for “Distractology 101: A Crash Course on Distracted Driving,” instructor Nick Prpich told them to make sure they had their cellphones.

“Distractology 101” came to Easthampton High School last week in a trailer parked in the school parking lot where students sat in front of three computer screens aimed to simulate the experience of driving on rural and city streets. With road signs and speed limits meant to simulate a real car, the student drivers were faced with scenarios such as people in crosswalks and other vehicles stopping suddenly in front of them.

“They feel like it’s so real,” Prpich said. “They’re not expecting to crash.”

“Distractology 101” was developed by the Arbella Insurance Group Charitable Foundation, founded by the Arbella Insurance Group in Quincy. The program’s visit to Easthampton was sponsored by Finck & Perras Insurance Agency, 6 Campus Lane.

Patrick Brough, a sales representative for Finck & Perras, said between 60 and 70 students in Easthampton participated in the program.

“Distractology 101” was last in Easthampton in 2013, when it was outside the city’s public safety complex. The trailer will come to Northampton High School on Dec. 17, 18 and 19. Prpich said this is the fifth year Arbella has done the course, and more than 10,000 young people around New England have taken it.

On Thursday morning, Madison Grabowski, a junior, and Kadyrose Newman, a senior, both 17, were among the Easthampton students who took part in the activity. Grabowski has had her license for seven months, and Newman has had her permit for about a year.

The program begins with a practice run, where the students drive without obstacles to get used to the simulator. At the start of each scenario that follows, Prpich tells them what the speed limit will be, but gives them no information about what obstacles they will face. A mock speedometer is at the bottom of the screen.

“I’ll be telling you when to start texting,” Prpich told the young women.

In one of the scenarios, the students drive on a rural street with a green truck far ahead of them. Prpich tells the students to take out their cellphones and send a text message to anyone they would like.

Grabowski and Newman texted each other, both holding their phones above the steering wheel as they drove. When the green truck stopped, neither was able to stop in time. Their screens show a shattered windshield.

After each scenario, the students were presented with statistics, such as that taking one’s eyes off the road for a few seconds means driving blind for 100 yards, the length of a football field. They were also given instructions on how they should have handled the situation.

“I wanted to do this because I see like a lot of my friends that do text and drive, and it actually makes me kind of nervous, so I wanted to see what it was like if I did it,” Newman said. “It definitely felt bad hitting people, so I definitely don’t want that to happen in real life.”

Brough said he can tell which students do not normally text while driving by watching them use the simulator.

“A lot of the kids are saying they don’t text and drive, and you can tell that by the way they are fumbling while they are doing this,” he said.

Grabowski said her experience with “Distractology 101” will change her driving habits.

“My phone’s going on the floor next time,” she said.

Not all of the scenarios involved texting. In another part of the program, the students are faced with a crosswalk that is half-blocked by other cars stopped in the road. In another scenario, they learn about making a left turn when a tractor-trailer is blocking their view of cars coming the other way.

At the end of the program, the students use the driving simulator without texting, and are faced with many scenarios similar to those they encountered in the previous rounds.

Driving through this final test, Easthampton junior Francis Fuhrmann, 16, carefully waited in line behind cars pulled up at a stop sign, and waited longer than necessary before going once he got to the front. He has had his permit since July, and can go for his license in January.

He said he was surprised when he crashed early in the program.

“I just kept getting more and more scared,” he said. “But then again, something went off in my brain where I was like, I can’t do that again.”

Brough was pleased to hear these sentiments from students.

“We change one student’s driving habits — that’s great,” he said. “It’s definitely teaching them that they should not be doing this.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.