Evaluating a Virtual Reality Game Demonstrating How Distractions Cause Performance Drop-Off: A Mixed Methods Approach in Early Teen Drivers

Project Title: Evaluating a Virtual Reality Game Demonstrating How Distractions Cause Performance Drop-Off: A Mixed Methods Approach in Early Teen Drivers
PI name(s): Andrew Hashikawa,
Co-I name(s): Carol Flannagan, , Colleen M. Peterson, Timothy Visclosky, Prashant Mahajan


Motor vehicle crashes (MVCs) are the leading cause of teenage deaths worldwide. Teen drivers (ages 15-19) are vulnerable to crashes from texting while driving (TWD) because of their inexperience, poor risk assessment skills, and ubiquitous use of cell phones. In this project, we will gather and analyze pilot data on a Virtual Reality (VR) game intended to teach new teen drivers about the adverse impact of divided attention, multitasking, and distractibility on driving, with a focus on TWD. VR has been used to change attitudes in other contexts. Our team’s goal is to test the VR game as a tool to augment a discussion-based educational session for teenagers on TWD. A VR game called Distracted Navigator has been developed by two of the proposers over the last two years but has not yet been piloted in teenagers. Using a VR headset and controllers, the player inside a virtual cockpit navigates a spaceship through an asteroid field in two sequential rounds – one round without any distractions and one round with distractions.


Distracted Navigator was designed to demonstrate the effects of several types of distractions on game performance based on three models of distraction: a.) Shared attention; b.) Task-switching; and c.) Inattention blindness. Distracted Navigator was also intended to 1.) create a familiar game environment without exactly replicating an automobile driving experience or simulation; 2.) be played in under 10 minutes; 3.) have adjustable distractions to fine-tune gameplay; and 4.) be streamed so an audience can watch gameplay. The VR qualities of portability, engagingness, immersion, and enabling audience viewing are critical for scalability in its use as an educational tool in the driver’s training setting. Our proposed research focuses on having teenagers play Distracted Navigator to teach them the adverse effects of divided attention, multitasking, and distractibility on the performance of a primary task, engage them in a group discussion that ties in-game concepts to TWD, and obtain their feedback. Our overall hypothesis is that when teenagers play the VR game and watch others play the game, they will have increased awareness of how multitasking and distractions (TWD) negatively affect performance. We will evaluate our hypothesis using two specific aims.

In Aim 1, we will pilot the game with a cohort (n=6) of individual driver-training-eligible teen inpatients at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital to fine-tune VR set-up, onboarding instructions for new players, gameplay parameters, game streaming, obtaining feedback about the standard driver’s training educational material and pre-post survey questions that will be used for Aim 2. In Aim 2, we will recruit youth (n=36 total participants) from Ann Arbor and Detroit high schools and randomly assign them (2:1 ratio) into four intervention groups and two control groups, with each group having six participants. The intervention group will participate in a pre-survey, VR gameplay and a moderator-led discussion on how playing or watching the VR gameplay affected their perceptions on TWD and lessons learned from the game (intervention), a discussion-based educational session on distracted driving using a standard driver’s training education curriculum, and a post-survey. The control group will participate in a pre-survey, standard driver’s training education and discussion on how distractions and multitasking affect driving performance (without having played the VR game), and a post-survey. The control group will then have an opportunity to play the Distracted Navigator at the end of the session to ensure that all participants have the opportunity to engage in the VR game regardless of group assignment. This proposal aims to obtain pilot data to support an R01 application to conduct a larger randomized controlled trial that assesses attitude change and longer-term changes in teenage driving behavior (i.e., TWD) and crash experience after the VR gaming intervention. Our long-term goal is to have a fully developed VR game with an educational discussion session on TWD that can be seamlessly incorporated into a typical high school-level driver’s training program.