The potentially devastating consequences of texting while driving were made crystal clear to a large number of West Hartford high schoolers on Thursday when they had a chance to simulate the experience in a virtual reality environment.
A line of teenagers, some showing a bit of a tough, cocky, it-would-never-happen-to-me attitude, waited in line in courtyard Thursday afternoon for a chance to try out the simulator that AT&T brought to campus as part of the company's .
After a hands-on opportunity to "drive" and text in the simulator, most showed an attitude that was much more humble.
The simulator is a computerized system set in a real car. "Drivers" adjust the seat, buckle up the seatbelt, and turn on the ignition. Wearing a special pair of glasses, they receive a virtual reality experience that shows what can potentially happen while sending "just a quick text."
"What better opportunity can there be to show young, new drivers how taking their eyes off the road for just seconds can affect the safety of themselves and people around them," said Abby Jewett, Director of External & Legislative Affairs for AT&T.
Some of the students trying out the simulator were not even old enough to have learner's permits, although many were experienced video gamers and most considered themselves expert texters.
"Wow, what was I thinking!" exclaimed freshman Kenny Andrews inside the simulator as everyone heard a loud crash. Andrews won't be driving for a few years, but he thought he was going to be able to complete the simulation without crashing.
Instead, he said it was "pretty hard, and you couldn't even see the road." Andrews said he thought the simulator was a good idea, and would make a difference in how he behaves when he does start driving.
Junior Eric Almeida is 17, and has his license. When asked if he texts while driving, he said, "I don't, but I want to see if I can do it."
"The brakes don't work!" shouted Almeida, as he also crashed. Almeida exited the simulator with a different outlook, saying it definitely made a point and was much harder than he thought it would be. He walked right over and added his signature to hundreds of others on a large poster that declared "I Pledge My Life to Not Txt and Drive."
Even adults, with years of driving experience, did not fare any better. Conard office staff members also crashed, as did a reporter from a local television station who took a turn in the simulator.
In fact, only about a dozen of the 141 who had tried out the simulator by early Thursday afternoon made it through without crashing or swerving dangerously according to Tyler Salzwedel from PEERS in Grand Rapids, MI, the company that owns and operates the simulator.
"A lot make it all the way to the end, but no one really does it perfectly," said Salzwedel, who is part of one of PEERS' four teams traveling around the country with simulators.
There was a steady flow of Conard students testing out the simulator during lunchtime and other free periods. Jewett said she thought it was important to demonstrate the effects to teenagers. "When you combine texting with inexperienced drivers, there can be very serious consequences," she said.
Although the Conard event is the simulator's only stop in Connecticut as part of AT&T's campaign, there are other things that can be done, she said.
"September 19 is national 'No Texting While Driving Day,'" she said. AT&T is calling on all drivers, not just teens, to go to www.itcanwait.com to take the no-
texting-and-driving pledge, and then share their promise with others via Twitter
(#itcanwait) and Facebook.
Jewett said there is also a free app, called "Drive Mode," which will automatically send a response to someone who sends a text or email while you behind the wheel, letting them know you are driving. An upgrade to this app which will be released later this month will automatically turn it on as soon as your speed reaches 25 m.p.h. Calls made and received through blue tooth technology are not affected.
West Hartford's Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor, who was observing the simulation at Conard, said the Town Council plans to issue a proclamation at its Sept. 11 meeting declaring Sept. 19 "No Texting and Driving Day." The proclamation will be presented to Jewett and Noa and Jacob Silverstein, who last year initiated a fundraising program and campaign called “Buckle Ur Phone” which focuses on education about the dangers of texting and driving.
"This is an important part of the educational process, and it takes reminders. It's also a two-way street; don't text your kids when you know they're driving," said Cantor, the parent of several teenagers.
Although this demonstration was aimed at teens, parents need to pay attention, too. AT&T issued a news release stating that a "recent survey found that 77 percent of teens have seen their parents text and drive." According to the release, 75 percent also said it’s common for their friends to text and drive.
According to AT&T's release, "Texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be in an accident, and more than 100,000 car crashes and injuries happen while a driver was texting and driving."
To learn more about the simulator, check out this YouTube video.
To sign the pledge not to text and drive, visit www.itcanwait.com.