Simulator shows dangers of distracted driving




Jesse SanJuan, a freshman accounting major at Garden City Community College, didn't last long before crashing his virtual car into a pole while trying to send a text message Wednesday afternoon.

"It definitely points out your mistakes," SanJuan, of Garden City, said after exiting a simulator designed to educate students about the dangers of drunken and distracted driving.

Michigan-based Unite International, in conjunction with the GCCC Student Government Association, brought its Arrive Alive Tour 2013 program to GCCC on Wednesday.

Using a high-tech simulator built into a 2013 Kia Soul, the goal was to educate people about the danger of drunken driving and texting while driving.

SanJuan said the experience was interesting.

"I think they should have more programs like this, especially at colleges because there's things like Thirsty Thursdays and you always have college life going on with people drinking," he said.

SanJuan said he has texted while driving before but doesn't think he will again. He thinks the simulator makes it obvious how distracted a person can become.

The simulator allows students to experience, in a controlled environment, the potential consequences of drunken and distracted driving, according to Unite employees James Pratt and Lauren Weidenaar, both 24 and both from Grand Rapids, Mich.

"A lot of people hear that drinking or texting and driving are bad. They generally know that, but until they actually experience it themselves, like through this simulation, they really don't take it to heart," Weidenaar said.

Pratt said students could choose to experience drinking and driving, texting and driving or both.

Upon entering the car, the driver put on a pair of virtual reality glasses and then operated the steering wheel and pedals as if in a real car. Two monitors outside the vehicle displayed the same view driver's experienced through the glasses.

When simulating a drunken driving experience, the computer makes it more difficult to steer and use the pedals. The program was set to simulate drunken driving at just over the legal blood alcohol level.

To simulate texting, drivers were handed a cell phone and told to try and text while operating the simulator.

"We've had about 60 try it so far," Pratt said shortly after the noon hour.

Pratt said they take the simulator to many different schools in a variety of Midwest states. In addition to Garden City, they've been to a couple of high schools in DeSoto and a college in Atchison.

"This is the farthest place we've been to in Kansas," he said. "The intent is to raise awareness of the dangers in drinking and driving and texting and driving — or any distracted driving in general."

Weidenaar and Pratt drive the Kia from campus to campus, packed with all the computer equipment, monitors and a tent.

Wherever they go, students tend to share personal experiences they have had with accidents involving texting or drinking.

Pratt said earlier in the day a student told a story about driving with a friend and her little brother who got into an accident due to a distraction caused by adjusting the radio.

"They were fighting over the radio and ended up rolling the car, and the little brother actually passed away," Pratt said. "Even just the radio can cause you to veer off."

Unite brings health and wellness programs to high school and college campuses across the nation. Its programs are designed to heighten awareness to the dangers and consequences of drunken driving and distracted driving.

One of the most commonly recognized driving distractions is cell phone use, and drivers younger than 20 have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The lack of driving experience can contribute to critical misjudgments if a young person becomes distracted, according to Unite, and college age people tend to text more than any other age group.

Terry Lee, 52, a GCCC faculty member, said the simulator was pretty nice, but it wasn't something that opened his eyes about the danger of drinking or texting while driving.

"No, I know they're both dangerous. But I've driven more than these 18-year-olds," Lee said. "But it's a good simulator. I mean, I hurt my nose, got my glasses dirty, couldn't see anything. It gives a good idea of what could happen, and hopefully none of these guys have ever done that."

Dora Lynch, 45, a student from Lakin, said the simulator made her a little dizzy.

"I crashed," she said.

Lynch said the simulator is probably a good way to provide some education, but it wasn't quite as realistic as it could be.

"It over-exaggerated things I think. Then again, we don't have as much traffic out here," she said.

While she knows people who have gotten into accidents in the past associated with drinking, Lynch doesn't think the simulator would have changed the behavior of the person who was driving drunk.

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