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UMD students get glimpse of virtual reality — and then reality — on distracted driving

University of Maryland students in a public health class are exploring ways to fight distracted and impaired driving. On Monday, a representative from AT&T took them on a virtual reality tour to show them what can happen when smartphones take a driver’s eyes off the road. (iStock)
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The hunt for solutions to the dangers of distracted driving came to a University of Maryland classroom Monday as students got to see for themselves what a smartphone-related crash might look like.

A representative from AT&T treated students in professor Kenneth H. Beck’s class to a simulation of the sort of catastrophe that driving and texting can lead to. By slipping on some virtual reality goggles, the class of 19 students could see what it feels like to be cruising along reading at texts until they crash.

It was a jarring video, and intended to get students thinking as they prepare to conduct research into ways to reduce impaired and distracted driving. It’s also part of a relatively new course at the university’s School of Public Health called “Drugged, Drowsy and Distracted Driving: Traffic Safety Issues for the New Millennium.”

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But it’s a discussion that maybe should move over to the Political Science department, because the real obstacles to action have more to do with politics.

Beck, a professor of behavioral and community health, invited AT&T in, along with other professionals working on the problem, as his students were preparing to launch research projects this term.

Dawn M. Couch, a senior public relations manager for AT&T’s regional office, explained her company’s “It can wait” campaign to educate people about the dangers of texting and driving and gave them a taste of it with virtual reality. In addition to the simulator, the company has created videos whose mini-narratives show parents and their kids going about their daily routines until that split second when texting and driving leads to disaster.

The campaign’s theme —  that you’re never really alone when you’re on the road – builds on research showing that adults are more likely to refrain from using a mobile phone while driving if there are children or another passenger in the car. Only 36 percent of drivers will look at a smartphone if there’s a passenger in the vehicle, compared with 64 percent who will when there’s no passenger.

The videos convey the message that when you pick up the phone because you’re bored and lonely because you’re not putting anyone (else) at risk with a quick text, you could be setting yourself up for a crash that injures someone you didn’t see on the street.

The campaign is also trying to shift social norms — that is, to change people’s attitudes so that driving while texting will become as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving. It’s already the case that 90 percent of drivers say they would stop texting while driving if a friend in the vehicle tells them not to. But the problem is putting that into daily practice.

“Now with ‘connected cars’ and everything, it’s going to get to the point where if people don’t stop using the phone behind the wheel, it’s going to disable your phone,” Couch told the class. In her vehicle, for example, she said she’s unable to enter a new address into her GPS device while the vehicle is moving. She has to stop to plug in the new coordinates.

The virtual reality demonstration – not to mention other public service videos produced by AT&T – was undeniably powerful. And no doubt AT&T is sincere in its efforts to curb distracted driving.

But Couch also acknowledged that wireless providers are caught in the middle here. Too aggressive a posture by the company could upset consumers who need to have  their phones embedded in their hands at all times – even when they’re driving. But not doing enough could open up the company to charges that it’s not doing enough – or perhaps even civil liability for failing to adequately address the danger that now exists on our roads.

“It’s just a question of whether Congress passing a law that mandates that that would occur,” Beck told his students. “The technology is there — the question is whether the advocates for cell phones would lobby against that. You as voters ought to be aware of that.”

He’s right. For all the talk about public awareness campaigns, stricter laws and more enforcement or the hope that a group like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) will emerge on the topic of distracted driving, it seems more and more clear that nothing is going to address the problem caused by technology until we get a technological fix — mandated for everyone — that blocks drivers from using smartphones while they’re driving.

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