WESTMINSTER — There are many things that can distract a driver besides texting on a cell phone, such as taking a drink from a bottle of water or queuing up some tunes on your phone.
“Jamming too hard,” is how one student described it.
Even putting on makeup can be dangerous.
Students at Bellows Falls Union High School learned about the dangers of distracted driving Monday, thanks to a special distracted-driving simulator from the Peers Foundation of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is bringing its public service message to two Vermont high schools this week.
Distracted driving is the number one killer in fatal accidents with drivers aged 16 to 29, according to the foundation
Michael Medendorp of the Peers Foundation gave the students an assignment before they headed to the augmented car. Drive and take a selfie “with all your faces showing” and stay on the road.
The students in the back seat did their absolute best to distract their buddy, the driver, urging him to pull into one fast food restaurant and then another and then they “crashed.”
“Little choices, big impacts,” said Medendorp.
Then three members of the BFUHS field hockey team climbed into the simulator, with Molly Kelly, 17, a senior, taking the wheel, and putting on the goggles as she attempted to drive.
Afterward, Kelly said the distracted driving simulator was like “an odd video game” that wasn’t all that easy to navigate.
Kelly said her distracted texting meant she crashed into another driver and car. “I think I hit a car in the end,” she said.
Kelly, who has had her driver’s license for a year and a half, said that distracted driving is a big issue with her friends.
Kids are goading each other on, she said, and have learned how to use their phones and drive. They don’t necessarily text, she said, but they look to see who has texted them.
Kelly said she’s been a passenger in a car with a distracted driver, and it was scary.
Even one of the teachers, Justin Aube, who teaches psychology and sociology, found it hard to navigate with the simulator.
Brady Harris, 17, another senior at BFUHS, said she learned that it wasn’t just texting that was dangerous. “You can be just drinking water,” she said.
The visit by the Peers Foundation was sponsored by a grant and support from State Farm Insurance.
Jack Cohun, BFUHS’s longtime driver’s education teacher, said his students spend time on distracted driving during class, and they study online videos.
But he said he also includes personal stories with grieving parents and teachers and lost friends to bring the issue home to the students.
He said he used to use gruesome police videos to try and scare the kids, but he said it doesn’t work.
Now, he said, he stresses common sense.
While the simulator attracted a lot of attention and laughter from the students, it was the personal story and experience by Medendorp that stopped the teenagers from talking about their weekend and the recent football team’s victory over Springfield.
It suddenly got very quiet when Medendorp talked about what happened to him when he was driving one of his father’s company’s new trucks with a couple of buddies in the truck cab and he got distracted by tunes.
Medendorp told the story about a friend of his who was taking a drink of water and crashed into a tree; the friend ended up with more than $200,000 in debt and a year in a wheelchair for memories.
Medendorp said afterward that while the simulator brought the reality of distracted driving home, it was personal stories that proved most powerful.
“I try not to sugar coat it and give them a dose of reality,” said Medendorp, who admitted that “really gruesome, juicy stories” seemed to have the most effect on young drivers.”They’re messing with their lives and the lives of other people,” he said.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.