LENOX – “Oh, man,” Zi Santos, an 11th grade student at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, said after crashing into the car in front of him. “Damn, he messed me up.”
“I couldn’t see her,” Santos said 10 minutes later, after hitting a pedestrian, who popped out of his blind spot, in the crosswalk. “I felt like she was coming. I knew it.”
Santos, 17, ended up crashing a handful of other times, as well: once while making a turn at a clogged construction zone intersection and another time smashing into the back of a Escalade look-a-like while texting on a sidewinding country road.
“A lot of this is the brakes,” he joked. “This must be rigged.”
But Santos’ crashes were harmless. No other drivers were hurt. No pedestrians were sent to the hospital.
That is because, on the afternoon of April 11, Santos was comfortably seated in a faux car, inside a trailer parked outside of his high school, surrounded by speakers, three television screens and event staff. Although the gas and brake pedals at his feet were very much real, his situation was not. Santos was a willing volunteer for Distractology, an educational program created to teach young drivers the dangers of distracted driving.
The program, which is sponsored by Toole and Greylock Insurance and was developed and funded by the Arbella Insurance Foundation, arrived at LMMHS April 10. The program’s schedule was booked full for the five days it was on site.
The simulator features city, suburban and rural driving scenarios and gives the driver an approximate 180-degree view out of their television windshield. Drivers have to keep an eye out for pedestrians, other cars, aggressive drivers and speed limits all while maintaining an air of safety. Distractions are thrown at drivers, which ultimately leads to crashes, to reinforce the danger of such behavior.
Brian Cogswell, the school’s assistant principal, was instrumental in bringing the distracted driving awareness program to LMMHS after giving it a test drive himself, in Lee, three years ago.
“It took me eight minutes to get into an accident,” Cogswell said.
Current studies show that teenage drivers have the highest accident rate in America. A recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study found that distraction was a factor in nearly six out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes.
“Young, inexperienced drivers are especially prone to partake in this dangerous behavior, which is why we’re committed to giving students a firsthand look at the devastating consequences of driving while distracted, whether it be changing the radio station or texting a friend,” Arbella Insurance Group Chairman John Donohue said in a public statement.
Cogswell agreed, adding that Distractology was an important education tool for his high school.
“We’ve noticed distracted driving is more than texting – it’s so much more than putting your phone down,” he said.
Santos learned that quickly. While blasting Travis Scott’s hit song “Goosebumps” over the simulator’s speakers, he was instructed by Nick Prpich – the Distractology trainer and tour manager – to switch songs. So Santos did, chosing Lil Wayne. Then Santos was told to turn the volume down. He did. And then he sideswiped a car on the highway – going 55 mph – and spun out.
“See, you were distracted,” Prpich said to Santos. “You have to focus on what’s in front of you.”
The simulator also teaches defensive driving, not just the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel.
At a bustling downtown intersection, Santos got into an accident with a motorcyclist. Although it was ultimately the motorcyclist’s fault, the Distractology simulator drove home the point: be defensive.
“You can’t assume everyone around you will do everything they’re supposed to,” the machine said over the same speakers Santos was earlier using for music.
The final scenario was an improvement for Santos, though.
Driving with two hands on the wheel – one up from his first scenario – and no phone in front of his face, Santos executed the final exercise expertly. Santos did not crash, did not hit anyone and did not speed.
“Looks like you made it Zi,” Prpich said. “Good job.”
For Santos, the Distractology program made a difference.
“I thought it would be an eye opening experience,” he said. “And I learned I should drive slower, not use my phone, or dance, or eat.”
This story first ran in the Berkshire Record.