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Giving teens a ‘crash course’ in distracted driving

Middleborough sophomore Hannah Johnson, with Robert Bliss, who teaches about the dangers of distracted driving.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe

Middleborough sophomore Hannah Johnson, with Robert Bliss, who teaches about the dangers of distracted driving.

As Robert Bliss travels around Massachusetts educating high schoolers on the dangers of distracted driving, he gets some inane questions like, “Do I have to stop at stop signs?” or “Does putting on lipstick using the reflective cover of my cellphone while driving count as ‘texting and driving?’ ”

With distracted driving a dangerous epidemic on US roadways, Bliss leads a program called “Distractology 101.” Sponsored by Arbella Insurance, the “crash course” puts teens behind the wheel of a driving simulator to see firsthand how distractions affect driving safety.

How does the simulator work?

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The consoles have 180-degree wraparound screens to give a realistic field-of-view. Drivers encounter a number of scenarios while using their phones. They discover the truth behind stats like these: Reaching for a phone distracts a driver for 4.6 seconds, or the equivalent of traveling the length of a football field.

Why is it so hard to break the habit of responding to every little buzz, beep, or ringtone from your phone?

We live in a world where everything is mobile and on demand. I tell kids, “When you get in the car to drive home today, do me a favor — turn your phone completely off, and not just on vibrate or silent mode. You will go through three stages. The first is severe anxiety; the second is a feeling of relief, and the third is that you’ll feel safer behind the wheel and more in control.”

Is it safe to use a hands-free device to talk on a cellphone while driving?

Phone calls affect the way that your mind processes a situation. Research shows that multitasking doesn’t really exist; your brain can really only focus on one thing at a time. If your attention is on your cellphone, you’re not able to concentrate on driving.

What are the ways we rationalize distracted driving?

So many kids pick up bad habits from their parents. They’ve been carted around to soccer practice and school, and watched mom and dad pick up cellphones while driving. But parents often feel like distracted driving isn’t applicable to them because they’ve been driving for years. But whether you’ve been driving for one year or 20, every time you pick up the phone, your risk of an accident increases by 23 times.

Are texting laws being enforced more?

We brought the Distractology 101 course to East Bridgewater earlier this year. The trailer was parked at the high school, right next to the police station. It brought a lot of attention to the issue, and the week after we left, officers issued 42 tickets for texting and driving in a matter of four hours.

What did you do before working with the distracted driving program?

I was an independent marketing contractor. For many years my job was driving around giant promotional vehicles, including a huge peanut truck and other strange custom vehicles.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com

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