April 21, 2010 / 9:32 PM / 9 years ago

Crash course takes on deadly distracted driving

BOSTON (Reuters Life!) - If the terms “textgating” and “sender bender” ring a bell, it might be time to sign up for a crash course in driving safety known as Distractology 101.

Morning commuters drive south across the Sydney Harbour Bridge April 21, 2005. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Distracted driving has become a deadly epidemic, according to the Arbella Insurance Group which has funded a Massachusetts program to teach safety skills to teenagers and other new drivers.

The Distractology tour set out on Wednesday from Quincy, Massachusetts, its 36-foot-long neon-yellow mobile classroom outfitted with high-tech driving simulators.

The simulators each have a steering wheel, speedometer, gas and brake pedals and indicator lights. They lead drivers through a range of potentially dangerous scenarios.

Nearly 6,000 people died in crashes involving at least one distracted driver in the United States in 2008, accounting for 16 percent of total fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.

The number of drivers distracted at the time of fatal crashes spiked to 11 percent in 2008 from 8 percent in 2004.

Texting is among the most dangerous of distractions, and is often associated with inexperienced drivers, especially teens.

“During their first month on the road, novice drivers are six times more likely to be in a fatal crash than drivers with a year’s driving experience,” said Donald Fisher, head of the engineering department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

People who text while driving are 23 percent more likely to be in a crash — dubbed a textident — or to barely avoid one.

Research from the University of Utah has shown that using a cell phone while driving delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration of .08, the maximum U.S. legal limit for adults.

The mobile classroom will travel throughout Massachusetts and neighboring Rhode Island over the next three years.

“Our goal with Distractology 101 is to put 10,000 new drivers through this training,” said John Donohue, chief executive of Arbella.

Various U.S. states have laws banning mobile phone use or texting while driving. But a study released in January by the Highway Loss Data Institute showed that the bans typically had little effect on crash rates.

Reporting by Ros Krasny, editing by Michelle Nichols

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