AT&T simulator provides realistic, deadly examples of distracted driving

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the late David Hughes.

Virtually speaking, thankfully.

On Friday afternoon in the Launch Terre Haute office, I couldn’t resist trying out the AT&T “It Can Wait” Virtual Reality Simulator, which tests drivers’ reactions to the distractions of smartphones.

This was one of 100 stops across the eastern half of the United States for this simulator in 2016. Next stop for the AT&T simulator tour will be Harrisburg, Pa., on Monday. Its previous stop before Terre Haute was St. Charles, Mo., on Thursday.

Several — including Mayor Duke Bennett — tried their luck during its five hours of availability Friday.

When my turn came for the 90-second test, I strapped the goggles around my head and selected my age group (56-65) before I “virtually” backed out of a driveway.

The simulator had me approach a crossing area for a couple of school children with a guard holding a red “Stop” sign. I actually stopped.

So far, so good.

I turned left after the children crossed the street. Then came the smartphone distractions, which most of us face on a daily basis. I glanced down to read a text someone had sent me and I barely avoided striking some bicyclists crossing a street. They looked back at me as if I were a jerk for almost hitting them.

Suddenly, the simulator transported me to a highway setting.

Don’t look at your phone, David! Don’t look!

Too late.

The simulator made me do it. Of course, I barely missed rear-ending a pickup truck that had slowed down in front of me.

Seconds later, the simulator put me in a two-lane exit where I almost sideswiped a car while I checked my stupid phone again.

About this time, I started guessing the test would end tragically.

The simulator then dropped me into a city traffic scenario — resembling Indianapolis in the daytime, I thought — and naturally I almost rear-ended another car while checking a text on my phone.

Can I throw my phone out the window yet? Nope, the simulator wouldn’t let me.

Next I almost ran over a man rolling a baby stroller across a street. Someone stop me! I’m a monster!

Someone stopped me all right.

One final glance at my phone caused me to get T-boned by a red car, smashing my windshield and killing me instantly.

The simulator showed my rising out-of-body view of the violent crash and nearby gawkers as I hovered upward, presumably toward heaven.

Not too pleasant, I admitted to the simulator workers. It also felt realistic, which I’m sure is the goal of the simulator.

When driving my real car in the real world, I’d like to think I’m not the worst person about doing stuff on my phone. What I am occasionally guilty of, however, is looking down to see if an important text came back from someone I contacted for a story. Newspaper deadlines come faster than most people realize, and busy sources return calls or texts only once, so I don’t want to miss interview opportunities.

But can it wait? Yes, absolutely. If I’m so worried about someone calling or texting me back, I can pull over to a parking lot if I need to check immediately.

Others who took the test Friday agreed.

Hilary Horrey, who lives in Bloomington and commutes to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology for work regularly, decided to stop in Launch Terre Haute on her lunch break to see how the simulator might help her become a more alert driver.

“The way that it was presented was very realistic, so it made it more of an educational experience,” said Horrey, who acknowledged that she occasionally looks at texts while driving in real life.

And what happened to the distracted Horrey at the end of her simulated test?

“Oh, I died,” she said, adding that she thinks this will impact how carefully she drives in the future.

Pepper Mulherin, director of external affairs for AT&T Indiana, said the simulator was popular with adults and teenagers during the morning hours Friday, but it became easier to access in the afternoon.

“Everyone who has experienced [the simulator] unanimously agreed that it’s very realistic,” Mulherin told the Tribune-Star. “This is a very sophisticated virtual reality opportunity to experience distracted driving in a safe environment.”

Also on hand Friday was 21-year-old Indy Lights driver Zach Veach, who’s previously tested the AT&T simulator. A professional driver for the past six years, he signed autographs while visitors waited to use it.

“Unfortunately, distracted driving is one of these things where it takes someone being involved in an accident to realize how dangerous it actually is,” he pointed out. “So for a simulator to come in and kinda give people an idea of how dangerous it can be — with no real consequences — it’s good for them to understand what’s at risk and for them to take that back to their peers.”

Veach offered one more piece of advice for motorists.

“We can easily stop it by putting our phones down,” he emphasized.

David Hughes can be reached at 812-231-4224 or at Follow David on Twitter @ TribStarDavid.

Posted on February 29, 2016 .