DRACUT — Brad Keefe kept his eyes on the road late Monday morning just outside Dracut High School. The DHS junior reached forward to change the radio station and, in seconds, got into an accident. His windshield cracked.
Fortunately for Keefe, it wasn’t a real accident but a lesson through Distractology, a driving simulator tour that tries to tackle the problem of distracted driving. Sponsored by the Arbella Insurance Foundation, the bus containing the simulators is currently parked outside Dracut High through Friday.
Keefe, 17, said he chose to take the Distractology challenge because he felt it would be a good experience.
“It would teach me more … maybe wake me up,” said Keefe, who admitted to sometimes checking his text messages while driving.
Nick Prpich, who mans the mobile bus, said the scenarios played on the “road” screens before the student drivers include the use of a cell phone by way of texting or snapping selfies, listening to the radio, and drinking water.
“We have them do different scenarios where they’re also looking out for drivers that can do something wrong. You have to look at signs, you have to know who’s got the right of way … so they pretty much have to be focused on the road,” Prpich said. “The goal really is to have them be more aware of how fast they can get into an accident if they’re doing something that’s distracting them, like the cell phone, radio, eating and drinking … the cellphone’s a big one because they use that all the time.”
Over eight people are killed and 1,161 are injured daily in incidents reported as distraction-affected crashes in the U.S., according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Keefe, 17, said he’ll listen to music on the radio sometimes while driving and tries not to look at the dial, but feel around for the station instead.
“But on that, I could not feel around at all,” the teen said, turning back to look at the simulator. “As soon as I looked down, I got into an accident.”
Distractology’s week-long stop outside Dracut High comes after wellness teacher Carol Whiting requested a tour over a year ago upon hearing about the impact it had on Methuen High School students. She was placed on a waitlist for the tour, which travels all over Massachusetts.
“I think distracted driving is becoming more and more of a problem. I see when I’m driving on my own, a lot of people that are on their phones and they’re not just talking, they’re texting, and it really irritates me,” Whiting said. “I think that people don’t understand the dangers involved that an accident, which can be very serious to people — or even a fatality — can result from somebody just texting and driving… and I don’t think students understand that it’s that quick.”
DHS Principal Richard Manley said that students at this age often don’t think of the consequences of decisions.
“In the case of distracted driving, a split second distraction can have lifelong consequences — even death,” he said. “There’s no second chances in the case of distracted driving that might result in fatality. Students don’t have the opportunity to say ‘Well, I’m never going to do that again. Now I’ve learned my lesson.’ We have to teach them the lessons prior to an incident.”
In a related matter, Dracut Public Schools has worked to address issues brought on by the cyber world by hosting screening “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age,” a film by Delaney Ruston that touches on how tech time impacts children’s development and everything from excessive cellphone use among youth, cyberbullying and video game addiction. The screening was held last Wednesday at Dracut High School Learning Commons and captured an audience of more than 30 parents and children.
“Go home, have a conversation. Think about this stuff,” Director of Student Services Richard Whitehead told parents after the screening. “We have this responsibility, I believe we have this responsibility … I don’t know what the answers are, but they’re out there somewhere. Staying silent is not the answer.”
Among those in the audience was School Committee member Allison Volpe, who said the film was “eye-opening.”
“I’m not surprised by what I saw. I definitely see my life in it … and it’s also a little scary,” Volpe said. “I have a daughter whose almost 12 and we’re having these conversations, and my son whose 10, I see him spending increasing amounts of time on video games. We definitely need to set the boundaries now, while I still have a little bit of control of them. It’s scary.”
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.