WASHINGTON – The video game “Grand Theft Auto” encourages players to earn points by stealing cars,hitting pedestrians and escaping the police.
But “Streetwise,” a new Web-based video game introduced Tuesday by the Chrysler Group and its partners intends to raise teens’ awareness and understanding of driving risks.
“Streetwise” simulates real-life driving situations when players must deal with distractions such as cell phones,friends and the radio while following standard traffic laws and avoiding an accident.
Players who don't get into an accident,don’t get pulled over by the police for speeding and who remember to buckle their seatbelts can add their names to the global high-score list after they complete one of the game's six missions.
“I think I've mastered it,” said 16-year-old Charlie Lee,as his virtual car swerved to avoid an obstacle. “There's still some challenging elements to the game,but I think with practice I eventually got used to them.”
Lee,a junior at the Bullis School in Potomac,Md.,was one of about 10 high school students who were asked to test the new game.
The project started out as a way for driving safety groups such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,the National Safety Council and Mothers Against Drunk Driving to address the growing number of young drivers getting into fatal accidents.
Although teens make up only 7 percent of drivers,they are involved in 14 percent of fatal crashes,said Jeffrey Runge,NHTSA administrator.
“As a nation,we've simply got to do better,” he said.
Chrysler worked with WildTangent,a publisher of online games,to design a game with some important educational messages.
Instead of making a game that depended on the player's ability to steer a car,the designers decided to emphasize the many distractions drivers experience.
“We decided that we were going to try to make the game much more like an arcade game,” said Alex St. John,CEO of WildTangent. “So the game doesn't actually let you control the car. It's more like an arcade game where it's all about timing and avoiding the hazards at just the right moments and also having the hazards associated with messages we wanted to deliver.”
So far,nearly all of the teens who played the game said they enjoyed it and learned something from it,St. John said.
In addition to the online game,a parents’ guide is available at the Road Ready Web site,http://www.roadreadyteens.org.
“The fact is,teens do listen to mom and dad,” said Runge.
Graduated drivers licenses,which restrict the times new drivers can be on the road and the number of passengers in the car,have been very successful in decreasing the number of fatal crashes in the 48 states that enforce it,said Susan Gustafson Pikrallidas of AAA.
But state laws are not enough,Runge said. Parents must set guidelines for their teens and help educate them about the serious consequences of unsafe driving.
Engaging students in an activity they are already familiar with is the best way to do this,he said.
“Parents really are the key to making sure that driving is not just a fun exercise,that it is actually something that needs to be regarded with seriousness and that could potentially result in the loss of life,” Runge said in an interview. “I don't expect the video game to communicate that,but,clearly,engaging a kid in the awareness of hazards is a very important thing.”
Lee will soon obtain his driver's permit. He said he thinks “Streetwise” will help him ease into the whole process of driving.
“I think it will help me gain a greater awareness of things that can happen on the road,” he said. “Even though there are a few things that aren't realistic,it still stresses attention and focus and not being distracted by other teen drivers.”