Monroe County teens try out distracted driving simulator

“The main thing we want them to take out of this is that anything can be a distraction while driving, and within seconds, anything could happen,” said Kyle Krausbauer of the PEERS Foundation.

When Ashlee Bartel decided to Google the new “Game of Thrones” episode while driving, she quickly crashed into a nearby tree.

Luckily, the senior at Jefferson High School wasn’t actually driving on the road — she was behind the wheel of a distracted driving simulator.

But the situation reads all too familiar as the country’s distracted driving epidemic appears to be growing even more deadly, especially among teen drivers.

“It was so hard to drive that thing,” Ashlee said. “I definitely have a new perspective on driving.”

It’s estimated that nine people are killed and more than 1,000 people are injured every day in crashes involving distracted drivers in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention. About 58 percent of teen crashes are the result of distracted driving.

That’s why the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office joined with the PEERS Foundation, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit agency aimed at creating innovative and interactive ways to encourage positive decision-making among young adults, to bring an Augmented Reality Distracted Driving Simulator (ARDDS) to 12 high schools in the county.

“The main thing we want them to take out of this is that anything can be a distraction while driving, and within seconds, anything could happen,” said Kyle Krausbauer of the PEERS Foundation. “We want these kids to get their hands off their phones while driving.”

Making the rounds

Thanks to collaboration between the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office and the PEERS Foundation, along with a grant from the La-Z-Boy Foundation, 12 county schools were selected to participate in the Augmented Reality Distracted Driving Education Simulator.

Along with Jefferson, students from Milan, St. Mary Catholic Central and Dundee high schools and Monroe County Middle College already have participated in the distracted driving program.

Following is a roundup of the remaining area schools expected to participate:

■ Whiteford High School — Today

■ Monroe High School — Monday

■ Ida High School — Tuesday

■ Bedford High School — Wednesday

■ Airport High School — May 2

■ Summerfield High School — May 3

■ Mason High School — May 6

The distracted driving presentation came to Jefferson High School Thursday, where students from all grade levels — beginning with those involved in the school’s Student Prevention Leadership Team (SPLT) — had the opportunity to try out the simulator.

The same day, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formally declared the month of April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month in Michigan as part of a gubernatorial proclamation that received bipartisan-support.

“We don’t just need better roads, we need safer roads,” Whitmer said in a news release. “Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of our young people. That’s why I’m working to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. … We can’t sit back and do nothing while Michigan families lose their loved ones to distracted driving.”

As part of the PEERS Foundation’s ARDDS program, a maroon-colored Chevrolet Spark was hauled into JHS through the loading dock and set up with virtual-reality programming, including goggles and a blacked-out windshield.

The first Jefferson student to try out the simulator was senior Erin Bezeau, who called the program an “eye-opening experience.”

Erin, 17, said that by wearing the virtual reality goggles, users could see a driving simulation displayed across the car’s windshield. To drive, she said users would press the gas and brake, steer and use their blinker, just as they would in a regular vehicle.

Mock drivers brought their own cellphones on-board and PEERS staff would call out commands, like to take a selfie, check Snapchat or do a Google search.

“It was hard enough to drive as it was, let alone while on the phone,” Erin said.

Along with trying out the driving simulator, PEERS staff taught students about the various physical and mental distractions that could be considered distracted driving.

Some physical distractions, besides using a phone while driving, include looking at friends, eating, picking up something that was dropped or driving one-handed. Mental distractions would include being tired or crying while driving.

“Plus, if you are driving with your cellphone in your hand … it’s illegal,” Krausbauer said. “You will get pulled over, you will get a ticket and you could even get your license revoked.”

After finishing the program, students were awarded a “certification of completion” that’s equivalent to taking a safe-driving course — and could help lower students’ car insurance rates.

A public service announcement video about the simulator: