The Pokémon Go craze and the mishaps involving some players have highlighted how easily we can be distracted in the smartphone era and how potentially dangerous that is for everyone when a vehicle is involved.
But a different sort of virtual reality may help educate drivers about the hazards of driving and texting or other distractions.
The program is called Distractology, and it has been shown to be an effective part of a driver-education program, particularly for young people and novice drivers. Using a computer simulator, new drivers encounter a variety of scenarios involving smartphones, the radio, and eating or drinking at the wheel. After a relatively short session, new drivers can learn to anticipate possible hazards and remain focused on the road.
The program — developed by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Arbella Insurance Foundation — has been shown to reduce accidents by 19 percent among the people who have participated in the program. Those drivers were 25 percent less likely to get traffic violations.
Its developers hope that Distractology, along with a broader educational campaign, could reduce the number of distraction-related deaths and injuries. It could also become part of a campaign against texting and driving that might build on the campaign against drunk driving that began in the 1980s. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that 10 percent of all fatalities are caused by distracted driving, or more than 3,000 a year. But few distractions are as dangerous as texting and driving.
“No one that I know of has any disagreement with the statement that texting is 20 times more dangerous than keeping your eyes on the roadway driving,” said Donald Fisher, a research professor in the mechanical and industrial engineering department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who helped develop Distractology.
Fisher said that his interest in finding ways to reduce distracted driving and improve the safety record of young drivers grew even more intensely as his own daughters were about to learn how to drive. He and others at UMass developed Risk Awareness and Perception Training (RAPT). The program, which at first was not much more sophisticated than a PowerPoint presentation, steadily evolved into more complex simulations of distractions and dangers. The NHTSA, using data from California, has foundencouraging evidence that the approach could help reduce crashes among teenagers.
“We got a lot of very consistent feedback, and we heard that, ‘For the first time, I see how dangerous this is,’ “ said John Donohue, chairman and chief executive of the Arbella Insurance Group. “They didn’t use the word epiphany. But this felt real.”
The program is particularly timely, with reports of people running into parked cars and trees while playing Pokémon Go .
The number of insurance claims involving pedestrian fatalities spiked last year, to one of the highest levels in decades, and there are signs that smartphone distraction has played a role, Donohue said. He said people are texting and walking or bicycling. Add that to drivers who are noodling with their smartphones, and it’s no surprise that the number of accidents is rising, he said.
“It is starting to show up as a whole new level of danger,” he said.
–This posting has been updated to correct the last name of John Donohue.