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Distractology 101 instructor steers 'crash course'

By Cindy Atoji Keene
As Robert Bliss travels around Massachusetts educating high schoolers on the dangers of distracted driving, he gets some inane questions like, “Do I have to stop at stop signs?” or “Does putting on lipstick using the reflective cover of my cell phone driving count as ‘texting and driving’? With distracted driving a dangerous epidemic on U.S. roadways, Bliss heads up a program called “Distractology 101.” Sponsored by Arbella Insurance, the “crash course” puts teens behind the wheel of a driving simulator to see first-hand how distractions affect driving safety.

Q: How does the simulator work?
A: The simulators are based on research conducted at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which found that real-life scenarios are an effective way to teach new drivers about staying safe behind the wheel. The mobile classrooms are located in a 36-foot-long, neon-yellow trailer. The consoles have a 180-degree wraparound screens to give a realistic field-of-view. Drivers encounter a number of scenarios while using their phones. They discover the truth behind stats like these: reaching for a phone for distracts a driver for 4.6 seconds, or the equivalent of traveling the length of a football field.

Q: Why is it so hard to break the habit of responding to every little buzz, beep, or ring tone from your phone?
A: We live in a world where everything is mobile and on demand. We’re so used to using our cell phones that it’s a difficult thing to break. I tell kids, ‘When you get in car to drive home today, do me a favor – turn your phone completely off, and not just on vibrate or silent mode. I'm talking about airplane mode off. You will go through three stages. The first is severe anxiety; the second is a feeling of relief and the third is that you’ll feel safer behind the wheel and more in control.”

Q: Is it safe to use a hands-free device to talk on a cell phone while driving?
A: Texting just doesn’t just happen with your eyes. Phone calls affect the way that your mind processes a situation. Research shows that multitasking doesn’t really exist; your brain can really only focus on one thing at a time. If your attention is on your cell phone, you’re not able to concentrate on driving.

Q: What are the ways we rationalize distracted driving?
A: So many kids pick up bad habits from their parents. They’ve been carted around to soccer practice and school, and watched their mom and dad pick up cell phones while driving. But parents often feel like distracted driving isn’t applicable to them because they’ve been driving for years but never been in an accident. But whether you’ve been driving for one year or 20 years, every time you pick up the phone, your risk of an accident increases by 23 times.

Q: Are texting laws being enforced more?
A: We brought the Distractology 101 course to East Bridgewater earlier this year. The trailer was parked at the high school, which is right next to the police station. It brought a lot of attention to the issue, and the week after we left, officers issued 42 tickets for texting and driving in a matter of four hours.

Q: What did you do before working with the distracted driving program?
A: I was an independent marketing contractor. For many years my job was driving around giant promotional vehicles, including a huge peanut truck and other strange custom vehicles.

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