The NHTSA’s Virtual Reality Drinking-and-Driving Simulation Is…Weird

Think of it as a choose-your-own-misadventure story.

byWill Sabel Courtney|
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The holiday season is upon is, and with it comes an uptick in goodwill and cheer. It also brings about an uptick in drinking and driving. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, fatalities tied to alcohol-related car crashes jump around 25 percent during the days around Christmas and 50 percent during the time around New Year’s Day. So this year, NHTSA is attempting to combat drinking in a rather unusual way: using an online virtual reality experience to recreate the traditionally analog activity of going to a bar and knocking back a few drinks.

The VR website, called “NHTSA Last Call,” is a simulation seemingly designed to help you realize how much you can drink before you reach the point where you shouldn’t drive anymore. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book for the year 2016...if those books were based around your ordinary humdrum life and the best possible conclusion was making it home safely.

If you’ve used any of the virtual reality walkarounds on the Internet, the Last Call sim’s basic experience will be pretty familiar. You navigate around the bar by clicking on icons that guide you to different experiences, such as trivia or darts. Saddle up to the bar, and the bartender offers a choice of beverages. You can even interact with the assorted “patrons” around the bar, all of whom resemble the actors from a basic cable sitcom and who speak in dialogue that make them seem like police trainees on their first day of undercover instruction.

As a means of entertainment, it’s mildly enjoyable (especially in an ironic, so-lame-it’s-funny sense); but as a method of educating people about the dangers of drinking and driving, it’s mediocre at best. As you get progressively more drunk, the screen begins to blur for longer periods after each beverage, but it’s vague enough that it seems like more like a WiFi problem than simulated intoxication. And the system’s methods of revealing when you’ve overindulged is opaque; the large “drink meter” on the right side of the screen only needs to be a small portion of the way through its arc before you’re too drink to drive. There is a blood alcohol level gauge on the left side of screen, but it’s so indistinct, you could be stone cold sober and still never realize it’s there.

Still, if playing Last Call—even ironically—convinces even one or two people out there not to drink and drive this holiday season, it’s worth the time and effort it took to play it. And hey, we fully admit to being cynical New Yorkers—you might find it a hoot, so click here to give it a try.

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