Higher education

Popular YouTuber visits University of Iowa driving simulator

Tom Scott asks 'Is it dangerous to talk to a camera while driving?'

Vlogger Tom Scott takes a spin in the University of Iowa's National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) earlier this month
Vlogger Tom Scott takes a spin in the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) earlier this month. (screen shot taken from Scott’s YouTube video)

The University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator is getting some international exposure from a popular YouTuber who filmed a segment there about whether vlogging while driving is dangerous.

Tom Scott, a blond Brit known for wearing a red T-shirt in all his videos, has more than 1 million YouTube subscribers. He’s no Yuya (beauty vlogger) or Jake Paul (former Disney actor/lifestyle vlogger), but Scott’s science and technology videos regularly get hundreds of thousands of views, on par with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Omar Ahmad, deputy director for the UI simulator program, hadn’t heard of Scott when the YouTuber contacted the program in June to ask whether he could do an experiment in NADS 1, the largest driving simulator in the United States and first of its kind in the world.

WATCH: Tom Scott asks 'is it dangerous to talk to a camera while driving?'

But after watching some of Scott’s videos, which answer questions like “What is sea level?” and “How did green screen work before computers?” Ahmad knew Scott had a skill for explaining science and technology.

“When you’re trying to explain research, there’s a concern you’ll get so in the weeds you’ll lose the general public,” Ahmad said. “We looked at his channel and the quality of his work. His videos strike a good balance between education and entertainment.”

Scott came to the UI Research Park in Coralville Oct. 23, when NADS had a break between other projects. The transportation safety research center focuses on research that would be too costly, too dangerous — or just impossible — in the real world. Recent studies have been on distracted driving and the effects of marijuana use on driving.

John Gaspar, assistant research scientist at NADS, put Scott into a simulation for distracted driving.

“There’s a question I want to answer here,” Scott says on the video. “Recently, I did a video while driving. And it was on a dead straight road with very little traffic and I always felt in control of the vehicle. But was I?”

The simulation provides different challenges and experiences to see how the driver reacts. Scott did the simulation several times, in some cases delivering a monologue about the experiment and other times giving his full attention to the road. It’s not surprising he performed better while he wasn’t making a vlog.

“In one session he missed a stop sign,” Gaspar said. “He departed the lane a lot more (when vlogging) and drove 35 in a 25 zone.”

The experiment, although anecdotal, is timely, Ahmad said.

As YouTube has gained in popularity, people are filming themselves doing all kinds of things, from riding roller coasters and mountain bikes to motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles. Narrating these videos may cause cognitive distraction that can impair driving ability, although it might be on par with having an animated discussion with your car passenger.

Ahmad thinks Scott reached out to the UI because NADS is the largest simulator of its kind owned by a public university, which makes it more accessible. The UI did not charge Scott for the experiment, which NADS leaders felt was a public service.

Scott published his NADS video Monday and it already had more than 324,000 views and 1,100 comments Thursday evening.

The video has caused more inquiries about NADS and its studies, said Anna Dizack, who does communications for the research center. If you want your own spin in the simulator, you can sign up for studies at drivingstudies.com.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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