A video game that promotes safe driving?

Nick DiUlio

There are all sorts of ways to encourage safety behind the wheel, and GEICO is taking a novel approach when it comes to educating teen drivers — it’s encouraging them to play video games. Well, one specific video game that is.

In October 2012, the insurance company rolled out its GEICO Tricky Traffic mobile app, a smartphone game designed to give young drivers a fun and informative way to test their skills behind the wheel.

The game is rather simple. A player is given a bird’s-eye view of an intersection in the fictitious Geckoville. There, the player will encounter traffic safety scenarios that need to be coordinated with skill, instinct and precise timing. For instance, a pedestrian or cyclist may dart out into the busy intersections, or vehicles may make sudden stops. It’s the player’s responsibility to make sure no accidents occur.

Players are awarded points whenever good driving and traffic skills are displayed. But strike a pedestrian or hit another car three times, and you’re out.

Throughout the game, the GEICO Gecko shows up to provide traffic safety tips. Players can earn extra points by correctly answering quiz questions like, “True or False: When you are a new driver it’s best to limit your number of passengers to prevent distractions.” (That’s true, by the way).

“GEICO Tricky Traffic not only entertains drivers, but also illustrates the basic rules of the road,” says Janice Minshall, an assistant vice president at GEICO.

More games for better driving

While GEICO’s app may be the newest on the market, it’s not the only game out there designed to teach teens how to be better drivers.

Australia’s NRMA Insurance has designed a smartphone app called Car Park Challenge. As one in seven collisions in Australia occur in parking lots, the game requires players to avoid vehicle damage as they drive through 10 levels filled with tight corners and different obstacles. NRMA even uses data from its research center to estimate repair costs if you damage the vehicle.

Several driver education schools and programs have been using mobile and online gaming as a way to educate teens about the rules of the road. DriverEdToGo.com offers an online driving game called So You Think You Can Drive. After choosing a driver avatar and vehicle, players are taken though various road scenarios designed to give teens a simulated and interactive version of what to expect on the day of their driving test.

“I think a game that is well-constructed can impart a good deal of information to new drivers,” says Walter Meyer, a California driving instructor who runs a “comedy traffic school” where he uses humor and interactive games to teach the dangers of distracted driving.

Do games make a difference?

New teen drivers need all the help they can get in learning how to become safer behind the wheel. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), car crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds. In 2008 (the most recent figures available), more than 2,700 drivers in that age group died in car crashes.

Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of automotive website Edmunds.com, says there are two primary concerns when it comes to teen drivers: too many distractions (like cellphones and other passengers in the car) and their high tolerance for risk (since teens feel like they’re invincible, they take chances older drivers wouldn’t).

“What teens really need is experience behind the wheel and experience with advanced simulators that mimic real-world situations like locking breaks or hazardous roads,” Anwyl says.

Anne Marie Hayes, president of the Teens Learn to Drive Foundation, agrees with Anwyl.

“I really don’t see how this (GEICO) app will benefit teen drivers,” Hayes says. “It’s fairly juvenile, and I think it’s a PR move more than anything else. You tap the screen to make cars stop and go, and that’s not like driving at all.”

Hayes agrees that digital tools will continue to play a key role in teaching teens about the hazards of driving, but like Anwyl, she would rather see more emphasis on realistic driving simulators.

Maria Wojtczak, owner of Driving MBA in Arizona, operates two simulators at her driving school.

Driving MBA’s SSI driving simulator is geared toward new teen drivers and focuses on the fundamentals of driving. This simulator includes a bucket seat with seat belt, three monitors to give multiple views of the road, a steering wheel with controls, and a gas and brake pedal. The SSI driving simulator lets students experience the sensation of being in control behind the wheel, without putting themselves, other drivers or the vehicle at risk.

“In the U.S., we have a very cavalier attitude toward driving, and I think we underestimate what it takes to prepare any new driver for the road,” Wojtczak says.

Simulators like Driving MBA’s appear to be paying off. According to a recent study by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Driver Training, driver training that uses a simulator results in nearly a 10 percent reduction of traffic collisions.

When it comes to games like the one being offered by GEICO, Wojtczak says, they may help raise awareness about problems associated with teen driving – but that’s about it. Representatives of GEICO couldn’t be reached for comment about her criticism.

“The most important skill in driving is judgment and decision-making. But it’s so artificial on an iPhone or notebook computer that I don’t think it really builds those skills,” Wojtczak says. 

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