Can video games change attitudes toward distracted driving?

Photo: Edward Downs

A researcher at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) is experimenting with video games in an attempt to change teens’ attitudes toward distracted driving.

Edward Downs, associate professor of communication at UMD, used a PlayStation 3 video game console and a popular racing game to create a simple driving simulator, complete with a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals. His goal was to demonstrate the dangers of cell phone use behind the wheel in a safe, affordable, controlled environment—and ultimately make teen drivers less likely to drive distracted in the real world.

To test the simulator, Downs recruited a group of students from UMD and split them into three groups: a texting while driving group, a talking while driving group, and a control group (with no distractions). Downs then measured how often each group of drivers crashed, crossed the fog line, and engaged in speed violations to determine the effects of distraction.

Results showed that participants in the texting group were significantly more likely to crash or cross the fog line than those in the talking or control conditions, and drivers in the talking group were more likely to engage in speed violations.

texting quote

To measure the simulator’s effect on drivers’ attitude toward distracted driving, Downs completed pre- and post-driving surveys. In all groups, participants reported being less likely to drive distracted after they had completed the simulator study, but none showed significantly less intent. According to Downs, this was likely because none of the participants were able to compare their experience of driving distracted to driving without distractions.

To test this theory, Downs conducted a follow-up study that allowed participants to drive in both distracted and non-distracted conditions. “Allowing participants to see both their undistracted scores and their distracted scores resulted in much stronger attitude changes,” Downs says. “Participants’ intent to drive distracted was significantly reduced.”

The study’s results have implications for community programs and parents of teen drivers, Downs says. “In a time when financial resources are limited, driver’s education programs may be interested in setting up driving simulators of their own to show people how inefficient they are at driving distracted. For less than $500, they could purchase a video game console and accessories to begin changing attitudes toward distracted driving.”

For parents, especially those who may already have a video game console in their home, this study could provide guidance on a safe way to demonstrate the negative consequences of distracted driving.

“The added benefit of using video game technology is that, used properly, attitudes can be changed through experiential learning,” Downs says. “Allowing young drivers, particularly the youngest drivers with the least amount of driving experience, to reach a conclusion through their own experiences in a safe, controlled environment could be much more powerful than an authority figure telling them what they should or should not do.”

Following the initial study, Downs took three driving simulators to the 2014 Minnesota State Fair as part of the U of M’s Driven to Discover initiative. Downs and his team collected data from more than 200 participants, with a focus on whether or not the simulator could change attitudes toward texting and driving.

Preliminary analysis indicates that the simulator was successful, with participants reporting that they would be less likely to text and drive in the future. Downs and his research team are continuing to analyze the data to further their understanding of the relationships between technology, learning, and attitude change.


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Michael McCarthy