Commonwealth Journal

August 29, 2013

Fatal Distraction

Simulator tests SWHS students’ reaction-time texting behind the wheel

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

One minute, you’re driving along, hands on the wheel of your vehicle. Your phone buzzes or beeps or tweets, whatever it does. You pick it up, look at the screen, and smile. You put your finger to the keyboard and start to respond —
BAM!
The next thing you know, you’ve crashed into the side of another vehicle that suddenly pulled out in front of you.
It’s an all-too-common scenario, but rarely one that young drivers get to experience from the comfort of a school library. 
On Wednesday, personnel from the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety stopped by Southwestern High School and brought a unique piece of technology with them.
The D2 Distracted Driving Simulator looks a lot like a video game, but as Highway Safety Program Coordinator Tiffany Duvall notes, it isn’t exactly “Grand Theft Auto.” The device allows individuals to sit down at a steering wheel as they would in a car or truck and view three screens, designed to show animated on-road surroundings as one might see them through a windshield and two side windows.
Students sit down and get a feel for the controls of the driving simulator, trying out various speeds (following the posted speed limits, of course —though going too fast is certainly a possibility), then are encouraged to take out their cell phone and attempt to use it as they would to text, Facebook, etc. 
This gives them a feel of how difficult it is to drive while distracted by a mobile device — particularly when faced by the gauntlet of obstacles the simulator provides, everything from unexpected pull-outs to slowpoke tractors in the way. If you have a car crash, it simply serves to provide a lesson — without the pain and potential for death that come with actual accidents.
“The (local) safety officer expressed some concern about cell phone usage in the afternoon,” said Duvall, who noted that Kathy Hall, Youth Service Coordinator for Southwestern, contacted the Frankfort-based office about getting some help educating students about the inherent dangers of distracted driving.
“Our goal is to bring awareness to dangers of tenting and driving, and distractions in your car in general,” said Duvall. “It’s a growing epidemic. Everyone has a phone in their possession at pretty much all times.”
Duvall said they make a point to mention other distractions, such as passengers, food, music, and other elements that might take one’s attention away, even momentarily, from the task of driving.
DeShaun Bailey, another program coordinator, noted that statistics show that approximately 67 percent of all on-road accidents involve some sort of distraction just before impact. 
Duvall said that the simulator functions very much like a normal car — “You’ve got a gas pedal, brakes, steering wheel,” she said — and runs in five-minute intervals.
“It takes all the risky things that can happen — pedestrians, cars, animals, cars pulling out in front of you — and throws all that in,” said Duvall. “We’ll have other students send them messages or try to call them.
“The two main signs of distracted driving are lane travel and speed fluctuation, which are also the similar indicators with impaired driving,” she continued. “Everything that happens in the program is avoidable, by braking  or swerving or speed control. It shows (students) the difference as far as how much control they have before they have their phone out and how much they have after.”
Hall pointed to a web page parents and students can visit to learn more about distracted driving, the It Can Wait pledge (www.itcanwait.com), which features videos, important information, and more.
The program focused on seniors, noted Hall, particularly those that are already driving — as Duvall said, the goal here is not to teach students how to drive, but rather how to drive better and more safely — and hopes to produce young drivers that are also defensive drivers.
“The number one thing is safety,” said Duvall. “Obviously, you can’t control everyone else on the road. The best thing you can do is be aware of what’s going on around you to avoid an accident