Crash course: Simulator shows Easthampton High students the impact of distracted driving

  • Easthampton High School sophomore, Luc Hallisey, takes part in “Distractology, a driving while distracted simulator, on Friday, May 31.  —STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

Staff Writer 
Published: 5/31/2019 4:45:51 PM

EASTHAMPTON – Inside of a large trailer parked at the Easthampton High School this past week, a driving simulation that looked like a video game gave high school students a serious lesson. 

In 45-minute sessions, students were put through several rounds of driving simulations that tested their ability to navigate real-life situations, such as looking out for pedestrians and safely completing turns. 

Some rounds, however, featured a twist: Students had to drive while texting and using their phones, often to perilous results. The distracted driving simulator, called “Distractology,” gives students a first-hand look at what can go wrong when driving and using a cellphone. 

 “It was really eye-opening, and scary almost,” said sophomore Luc Hallisey, who has his driver’s permit. He and junior Sean Sabourin, who has his driver’s license, took part in the distracted driving simulation Friday morning. 

“I looked down for maybe two seconds and I hit someone,” Sabourin said. The dangers of driving while distracted has been a subject of scholarly research for well over a decade. A 2003 study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis found that cell phone-related accidents caused 2,600 traffic deaths every year, and 330,000 accidents that result in moderate or severe injuries. 

More recently, a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that driver inattention caused 3,166 deaths in 2017.  

For the past nine years, Arbella Insurance Co. has provided the mobile classroom used by Easthampton High School students to communities in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The “Distractology” curriculum and simulations are based on research conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

“It’s an effective tool for them,” said Nick Prpich, the tour manager for the Arbella mobile classroom. “It instantly makes them think differently about all these distractions.” 

An important component to the distracted driving lesson is the idea that a car can travel the distance of a football field in a matter of two to six seconds, Prpich said.  

The mobile classroom housed two driving simulators that could be right at home in an arcade, each with three screens, a driver’s seat, a steering wheel and pedals. Students buckled in, hit the accelerator and drove through digital streets and highways to the best of their abilities.

During one simulation, Prpich told Hallisey and Sabourin to begin texting a friend about their plans for the weekend. Both were driving on a 55 mph, three-lane highway, and within a few seconds, both high schoolers slammed into a vehicle ahead of them. 

“That scared me so bad,” Hallisey said after his simulated crash. 

“It can happen when you least expect it, and it happens fast,” Prpich told him. 

Luis Fieldman can be reached at 

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