Texas DOT Uses Technology to Curb Distracted Drivingby Jana Ritter - Published: 8/05/2013
TxDOT has taken new measures to reduce the dangers of distracted drivers on the state's roads and highways. Bringing a high-tech distracted driver simulator to schools, festivals and company events across North Texas, the idea is to give drivers a safe way to experience the hazards of texting and other distractions behind the wheel.
Gary Sisto experienced it first-hand as he hopped in a pickup for a drive and received an unusual order from the Texas Department of Transportation safety specialist riding along with: Take out your phone and start texting. “It’s difficult, right?” said Robert White, the TxDOT official watching Sisto fumbling around with his iPhone. Before he knew it, Sisto was already off the road, before overcorrecting and smashing into another vehicle. Fortunately the “crash” was a virtual one and the “road” where Sisto’s texting made him a danger to himself and others existed only on a TV screen.
More than 90,000 Texas crashes last year were caused by “distracted driving,” a description that encompasses everything from cell phone usage to simple inattention, TxDOT officials said. Those wrecks resulted in more than 18,000 serious injuries and about 450 deaths. But despite a growing awareness of the dangers of texting behind the wheel, a bill to outlaw the practice statewide fizzled in the Texas Legislature this year. Such a bill was passed in 2011, only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who decried the measure as “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”
Distracted-driving simulators have been around for years. But TxDOT's version is a bit different in that it involves an actual vehicle, a pickup with a small TV screen mounted on the dashboard above the steering wheel, facing the driver. Participants have the option of looking at that TV screen or putting on special glasses that make the simulation more immersive.
TxDOT teamed up on the project with Dallas-based AT&T, which paid $20,000 to create the video game-like simulator. While the Dallas office is the only one of TxDOT's 25 district offices to have the teaching tool, officials hope to take the simulator to as many locales as time and resources permit.
Hopefully the idea will catch on in other states too, especially considering that in 2011 alone, 3,331 Americans were killed and 387,000 were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver. Ten percent of injury crashes in 2011 involved a distracted driver and at any given moment during the day, 660,000 U.S. drivers are using cell phones or other electronic devices. Sending or reading a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, that's the equivalent of driving the length of a football field — blind.