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George Mason Students Highlight Dangers Of Distracted Driving

April 5, 2011

The HFES George Mason University (GMU) Student Chapter was recently featured in a television news story about an interactive driving simulation video game the students developed to highlight the human factors/ergonomics science behind distracted driving. The demonstration made its first appearance at the October 2010 USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC, where the GMU students partnered with the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS). Nearly half a million visitors attended the two-day festival, and the distracted driving display was a popular attraction.

Festival goers””mostly children of various ages””sat behind the simulator “wheel,” and were handed a cell phone and asked to send a simple text message to their parents. Almost immediately, the children veered from the lane, and most of them crashed into the side wall. GMU student Haneen Saqer explained to stunned simulator drivers why they did so badly. “We have a difficult time dividing our attention between two tasks, and when we do so, our performance on one of the tasks suffers. The brain has limited resources, and because driving is a demanding task, we should allocate our undivided attention to it.”

Michael Perel, former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Human Factors Division chief, was so impressed with the display that he introduced the idea to traffic safety officers at the Fairfax County Police Department. In February, Perel, GMU Student Chapter members, and the traffic officers brought the presentation to the Department of Motor Vehicles education class at Westfield High School in McLean, Virginia.

The driving simulator”“based video game had some of the high school students vowing to stop texting behind the wheel. “Now I know it can wait, and it’s not worth it,” said 16-year-old Katie Manning. “So I’m going to try my best to never text behind the wheel.” The session was covered by the local ABC affiliate and can be viewed here.

Since the initial demonstration at Westfield, two other schools have expressed interest in bringing the driving simulator to their students. The GMU students continue to work with the Fairfax County Police Department to explore expansion of the program to other high schools in their jurisdiction.

The festival provided a unique opportunity for GMU faculty and students to interact with children while educating them about HF/E principles and making science exciting and relatable to them. “It was incredible to see the immediate and profound impact that the simulation had on parents and children at the festival,” said GMU student and HFES member Nicole Werner. “Pairing that with the ability to explain the scientific reasons for what was happening in real time was a rewarding experience for me and all of the volunteers.”

Haneen added to that sentiment. “The demonstration on the Mall allowed us to share our passion for human factors/ergonomics research, highlight the experimental and cognitive principles involved, while at the same time teaching them the dangers of distracted driving.”

For more details, pictures, and video of the festival, please visit http://www.fabbs.org/fabbs-foundation/foundation-events/usa-science-and-engineering-festival/. Information about the George Mason University human factors and applied cognition graduate program can be found at http://archlab.gmu.edu/.

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