A virtual reality simulator used by Texas A&M AgriLife to help improve people’s driving habits has been updated to make the experience even more real.

“Obviously, it’s a little bit different than real driving, but you definitely feel like … you’re driving because all around you, you can see everything,” Texas A&M freshman Claire Crow said. “It looks like a real car; you can hear the car in your ears, but then also when you’re picking up the phone, it vibrates in your hands.”

The new version of the simulation was unveiled Wednesday morning at the AgriLife Center, along with a $35,000 grant check from State Farm to upgrade all of the Passenger Safety Project’s simulators to the latest version.

The Passenger Safety Project is funded through the Texas Department of Transportation and covers the entire state operating under the umbrella of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Kellner said.

“We provide education on not just distracted driving, but also on occupant protection, meaning wearing seatbelts and car seats,” Passenger Safety Project Program Manager Bev Kellner said.

“But distracted driving is a big part of what we do, and we go out to schools and employers and businesses and safety fairs all around the state, and most of the time we bring our simulators.”

State Farm Insurance Corporate Responsibility Analyst Felicia Van Frank said the insurance company and AgriLife have partnered together for many years to promote driver safety.

“It was a no-brainer,” Van Frank said about the partnership. “We’ve always been first to try to reduce the number of accidents, so when we got the opportunity to do these simulators, we were on board.”

They and AgriLife, along with SAFE 2 SAVE, work together to get the simulators into local high schools throughout the state.

“You can talk to them, talk to them, but when you actually put them in the seat and they see it, it kind of has a little bit more of an impact,” she said. “… The reality is, the more realistic you make it for the kids, the more it’s going to hit home.”

It does not matter how big or small the school is, they want to get people into the simulators to experience the dangers of distracted driving, speeding and following too closely.

“It’s all for one single purpose: to save a life,” Van Frank said.

The updated simulator is also made more real by adding a passenger who is trying to distract the user. This represents one of the most serious distractions for teens, Kellner said, noting the software now also measures how long the driver’s eyes are off the road.

“Hopefully it will give them that very realistic experience and horrible feeling when you do crash into a car in front of you, and you won’t have to have it happen in the real world,” she said. “That’s what this is all about, trying to give them a realistic experience in a safe environment.”

Marci Corry, founder and CEO of SAFE 2 SAVE, said her goal is to help get the simulators into more businesses and parents because many people think others should not drive distractedly, but they are OK to do it just that one time.

It is important, she said, for people to understand they need to leave their phone alone the entire time they are behind the wheel. That means getting directions before leaving their location, putting on a music playlist or podcast that they will not need to touch for the extent of the trip.

“Habits change in Aggieland, and then help impact everywhere else, too,” she said. “And you have so many bosses coming out of here. … They can influence their circle of influence back in other pockets of Texas.”

Wednesday was Crow’s first time trying the simulator, but said she would like to see it become the norm in schools throughout the state with cellphones becoming more distracting with social media and other apps.

“We’re operating a vehicle that weighs a ton, it weighs two tons,” she said. “It’s this huge thing that could hurt so many other people from one irresponsible decision.”

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