Mobile classroom at Belchertown High School simulates dangers of distracted driving

  • Delaney O’Brien, a senior at Belchertown High School, was told to text a friend during the “Distractology” distracted driving simulator, which visited the school from Nov. 26 to Nov. 30. O’Brien experienced a simulated crash shortly afterwards. GAZETTE STAFF/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

  • Hannah Austin, a junior at Belchertown High School, experiences the “Distractology” distracted driving simulator. The mobile classroom visited the school from Nov. 26 to Nov. 30. GAZETTE STAFF/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

Staff Writer
Published: 12/4/2018 11:42:58 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Every year, thousands of avoidable injuries and deaths arise from distracted driving. Last week at Belchertown High School, a simulation gave students a firsthand look at the consequences that can arise from just a second of looking away from the road.

The “Distractology” simulator, a mobile classroom that stopped at the school from Nov. 26-30, aims to create a realistic driving environment for students, said Nick Prpich, a tour manager for Arbella Insurance Foundation. The simulation incorporates every day potential distractions such as pedestrians, signs and other vehicles.

The program was developed by Arbella Insurance Agency based on research from University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Human Performance Lab.

Throughout the simulation, students are also faced with a variety of avoidable distractions: At one point, Prpich instructs students to take out their phone and text a friend as they “drive,” and later tells them to connect their phone to the car’s speakers and blast music.

“The best thing to do is show (students) the distractions that can happen on the road,” Prpich said, adding that “the best thing they can do is just focus on the road and drive.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,477 people were killed and another 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle accidents caused by distracted driving in the United States in 2015.

“We see (distracted driving accidents) every day in our office, and young people seem to have the biggest issues,” said Katie Gagner, assistant vice president at Moulton Insurance Agency, which helped to bring the program to Belchertown.

Hannah Austin and Delaney O’Brien, students at Belchertown High who are licensed drivers, said that the simulation’s realism left a notable impact. Both students experienced simulated crashes resulting from distractions, such as being instructed to text.

“It was very educational,” said Austin, a junior. “It definitely shows how easy it is with distractions to take your eyes off the road and crash instantly.”

O’Brien, a senior, agreed, adding, “Not being able to see pedestrians right away, not being able to see around the corner, those happen in real life.”

Both Austin and O’Brien said that texting and driving is a prominent problem among their peer group.

“They’ve got to know who’s texting them… They can’t bring themselves to put the phone down and keep driving,” Austin said.

“When you’re driving and you hear that ding, people just want to know who it is,” O’Brien added, noting that people often don’t stop to think that the text can wait until later.

“You can wait until you get to your destination, no matter who it is,” she continued.

Since the simulator’s launch in 2010, the Distractology bus has traveled to schools in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Last week’s program was the simulation’s second stop in Belchertown.

According to a study by Arbella, drivers are 19 percent less likely to be involved in an accident and 25 percent less likely to have a traffic violation after using the simulator. The simulator, which seats two students at a time, can accommodate about 90 to 100 students throughout its weeklong stop at schools.

Prpich said that although every student has a different experience with the simulator, most are surprised when they crash.

Reaching young drivers through the program is particularly important, according to Prpich. While Prpich has noticed that permit holders tend to be more cautious when using the simulator, newly licensed drivers can sometimes feel “overconfident” in their driving skills, he said.

“I think this is something that wakes them up,” Prpich said. “They still have to be careful.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at

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