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By Denise Brodey
| October 17, 2017
Anna Khouri, a 19-year-old student at UMass Lowell, still remembers the day when her driving instructor asked her to type a series of numbers into a calculator while she was driving 40 miles per hour. “I missed the prompt to brake by three or four seconds,” she says.
Even though it was on a closed course, and there was no danger to any other drivers, it still scared her. “I have told friends about the course and what it taught me,” she says. “I am not quiet about saying to people I’m driving with, ‘please don’t text while you drive.’”
After completing her instruction through the non-profit DriveInControl.org, the first state-certified crash prevention training program, Khouri felt a new appreciation for how those few seconds of delay could mean the difference between life and death out on the real roads. That lesson is why she now drives with her phone out of reach and on “silent,” always aware of the temptation technology offers — and everything it threatens to take away in a flash.
“It’s easy to think that maybe technology has made it impossible to get people to truly ‘drive aware,’” says Dan Strollo, executive director of DriveInControl.org, which has trained more than 30,000 students with its closed-course, hands-on education. “But we just can’t continue to accept that. When you get behind the wheel of a 6,000-pound vehicle, you should never be comfortable with any failure to drive safely.”
It’s an issue taking on greater urgency than ever. A new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that tested the distraction factor in 30 new car models found that 23 of them had technology on board that demanded the driver pay a high or very high level of attention to it while the car was moving.
If Strollo’s organization, which helps drivers who pass its course qualify for a discount on their auto insurance, wants to impart any single message, it is this: It is not enough for inexperienced, teenage drivers, who, based on statistics, crash four times more often than adults, to simply learn the basics of parallel parking, the rules of four-way intersections, and proper turning technique. They must also learn how to handle the most difficult challenge facing all drivers today, and what keeps parents of young drivers awake at night more than anything — the lure of their cell phone. Teens have an almost irresistible desire to respond to a text or a friend’s story within seconds, rather than wait the 20 minutes it will take them to get to their destination and then safely send a message or return a call.
“Even picking up a phone at a stop sign can be dangerous,” Strollo says. “Looking at a screen, then looking at the windshield gives you what I call ‘tunnel vision.’ Your peripheral vision is briefly altered, making you less aware of what’s around you.”
DriveinControl.org began including distracted driving drills to its courses in 2010. Its experiences are geared toward 16 to 20-year-olds and inexperienced drivers, a demographic known for high crash rates. The program’s instructors guide new drivers through braking and steering exercises, presenting them with increasingly unexpected situations in a controlled setting.
Its mission was inspired by a disturbing trend. Distracted driving is killing more people than ever. Each day in the U.S., nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver. Motor vehicle deaths are estimated to be the highest in nearly a decade. And just in Massachusetts? Motor vehicle deaths rose 15 percent between 2014 and 2016, according to a recent safety report.
Analysts say the leading cause is distracted driving: Talking on a cell phone, texting, using GPS for directions, selecting a new song to play, anything that takes the focus off the one place it needs to be — the road. “These are huge problems for teens, but the problem with distraction is growing and it spans all ages,” says Joseph Salerno, vice president of claims at Arbella Insurance Group in Quincy.
Eastern Insurance, one of the largest independent insurance agencies headquartered in New England, partners with InControl and offers an insurance discount to drivers who complete its program.
“For something like distracted driving, it often takes a more dramatic experience for people of all ages to understand just how dangerous it is to take your eyes off the road,” said Megan Donnell, vice president at Eastern Insurance. “For too long, the moment of reckoning for drivers came by being a part of, or witnessing, a distracted driving incident on the road. This is why we are so pleased about the development of advanced driver education programs, which can allow drivers to see first-hand how much can change in the blink of an eye, in a safe and controlled environment.”
Eastern also encourages parents, who are the models for new drivers, to do more than just encourage their children to put their phone on silent while driving. Request that your young driver put their cell in “the glove compartment while driving so they are not tempted to call or text while operating a vehicle,” the company advises. “And if they have to use their phone for music or GPS directions, recommend that they set everything up before driving.”
For now, too many drivers continue to treat driving as just another opportunity to multitask – as if talking, texting, and turning the wheel were intended to be done together.
But InControl driving instructor Kevin Stromski, who has been giving lessons for more than a decade, tries to explain to any new driver who gets in his car, that even the tiniest delay in reaction time can have serious repercussions. He doesn’t think teenagers today are necessarily riskier than earlier generations – it’s just that they have way more temptations at their fingertips. “Teens like risk,” he said. “Some are better at handling it than others.”
The word national safety experts use to describe drivers today isn’t “riskier” – it’s “complacent.” They agree, without hesitation, that complacency is deadly. And they are not entirely comforted simply by the news that tech companies, which they see as the source of the problem in the first place, are now the ones trying to fix it.
Apple’s recent announcement that it updated its iPhone operating system to include a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature was greeted as a smart and practical step, but hardly a panacea. After all, “favorite” contacts can still have their calls, texts and emails break through. A simpler solution? Turn the phone off and put it out of reach. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.
But so far, at least, that’s something drivers seem unwilling to do. When asked in a survey if driving safety is a priority, 83 percent of people overwhelmingly say “yes.” But those same people seem untroubled by speeding—and nearly half say they aren’t bothered by the idea of driving while texting, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
So the best approach, as Anna Khouri can now attest, is to strike a little fear in young drivers by making them experience first-hand the difference a three-second delay in braking can make.
“Hopefully,” Kevin Stromski says, “proving the risk through on-the-road drills will have a lasting effect.”
Want to learn more ways to safeguard the teens, and all the other important people, in your life? From all types of vehicles and drivers, to your house, condo or apartment, to your most valuable belongings, to your family and loved ones, Eastern Insurance protects all that’s good in your life. We offer a wide range of insurance options and discounts, like accident forgiveness and disappearing deductible, walk-in service at 23 different locations across Massachusetts, and 24/7 claims and customer service. Visit Easterninsurance.com today and join us for good.