Psychology Students Teach Teens the Dangers of Texting While Driving

Posted: April 11, 2011 at 1:04 am, Last Updated: April 13, 2011 at 3:48 pm

By Tara Laskowski

Thanks to a team of Mason psychology graduate students, high school kids in Northern Virginia recently got a crash course in the dangers of distracted driving.

The Mason students visited Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., and adapted a popular racing video game into a portable demonstration of what it’s like to text message and drive at the same time.

Sophomores from Westfield watched as five of their classmates took turns driving the racing course — first without any distractions, and then again while getting and answering text messages from their friends.

“Even the students who did well on the race course the first time, without any distractions, did poorly the second time around,” says Mason graduate student Erik Nelson, one of the student researchers working on this project.

“This showed them that it has nothing to do with experience — you can’t divide your attention like that, no matter how good you are at driving.”

Though the students laughed as the distracted drivers failed the course each time, the message was clear — driving while distracted by a cell phone or other portable device is extremely dangerous.

Nelson and his fellow researchers, Jon Strohl, Haneen Saqer, Ewart de Visser and Nicole Werner, are all graduate students in Mason’s Human Factors and Applied Cognition program. After presenting this project at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., last year, they realized how popular this interactive idea was with young kids and decided they wanted to get their message out into the community.

“Text messages are usually so meaningless — messages like ‘Hi’ or ‘Thanks,'” says Saqer. “We say to the kids, ‘Was this really worth getting into an accident over?’ We hope it shows them it’s not just a game — this is a real take-home message.”

The Mason students hope to bring this demonstration to other local high schools and eventually formalize the program so that others can replicate it. The Westfield demonstration was featured in a news report by ABC7.

In addition to the demonstration, the team held a discussion with the students and gave them recommendations about how to be safer drivers.

To avoid the temptation of answering a phone while driving, the team recommended the teens put their phones in the trunk or glove compartment before starting to drive. And if you must answer your phone, says Saqer, “Pull over into a parking lot or on the side of the road first.”

It just might be a life saver.

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