'Distractology 101' gives lesson in dangers of texting and driving

Nate Maci, 17, looks up from texting just as he rear-ends a truck in a simulated driving course. He was taking the program “Distractology 101” about the dangers of texting and driving in a special trailer outside Amesbury High School.BRYAN EATON/ Staff photo

AMESBURY — New Amesbury High School drivers have been learning the dangers of distracted driving firsthand this week, thanks to a 36-foot-long, neon-yellow trailer in the parking lot of the school. It had the added effect of transporting Principal Roy Hamond back in time.

“It was extremely valuable,” Hamond said. “Way back in the beginning of my career, I actually taught driver’s education and I think what the kids learned is how easily they are distracted. The students are told to take out their own cellphones and told to text as they drive, and they crashed.”

The driving-aged students have been going in pairs into the trailer for 45-minute “Distractology 101” classes that were developed by the Arbella Insurance Foundation and brought to Amesbury by Gould Insurance Agency as a proactive measure to help cut down on auto accidents and the insurance claims they create.

“They do enjoy it,” Distractology 101 tour manager/trainer Nick Prpich said. “The software is set up so it is more friendly toward teenagers and it is more fun. The are texting and they are driving and get to use their own cellphones. So they experience what it would actually be like to operate in a safe way so they do not get into any accidents.”

The students are presented with a driving simulator that provides six virtual reality scenarios with built-in distractions such as the car radio, GPS and talking to passengers. The mobile classroom is equipped with three monitors with front, side and rear views to give the students a realistic driving feeling. Once the scenarios begin to play out, the students are presented with blind driveways, intrusive tractor trailer trucks, darting pedestrians and suddenly-stopping cars.

The results, according to junior Brad Kelleher, are not quite what the students think they will be when they first get behind the virtual steering wheel.

“I walked in there thinking it was probably not going to be too, too hard,” Kelleher said. “But when I got into it, it was pretty difficult.”

Much to his classmates’ delight, Kelleher crashed on numerous occasions.

“There was a two-way lane and a crosswalk,” Kelleher said. “And it did not have a stop sign, but there were stopped cars beside me and then the passenger would walk across the street and I didn’t see him. So I hit him.”

Kelleher wasn’t the only student to find himself running into trouble.

“It was fun watching the kids get into it,” Hamond said. “Especially when they thought they knew everything and they found they still didn’t. So they realized that you really can’t predict what is going to happen when you are on the roads. You have to be focused and safer when you are driving on the road.”

Currency in his fifth year as Distractology 101 trainer, Prpich travels all across New England pointing out the many different distractions that can cause a problem while on the road.

“Even dancing,” Prpich said. “People are just jamming out to the radio and that is a distraction, believe it or not. But what we do concentrate on is texting and driving because that is that biggest way of getting into accidents right now with distractions.”

Once the initial nerves and laughs are out of the way, Prpich said the students take the course very seriously, especially when they realize what is at stake in the real world.

“They do learn a lot in the 45 minutes that they go through,” Prpich said. “They thought it was going to be different, but the majority of the time they are surprised when they do get into accidents. ‘I don’t want to to do that again,’ they say. ‘I don’t want to text and drive again.’”

Students were slow to sign up for the  mobile classroom initially, Hamond said, but once the word got out, the remaining slots filled up quickly.

“I thought it was awesome, it was a really good experience,” Kelleher said. “It taught me a lot about some things that I really didn’t know, and really didn’t learn in driver’s ed, like being distracted or when to look around at corners and such. Always pay attention and notice your surroundings and be careful when you are driving.”

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