Thursday, June 12, 2014

Distracted driving class a wake-up call for teens

From: Shreveport Times

“I pledge allegiance to the glag of the united stew on smelt divide and the repulsive for.”

That’s the best 17-year-old Kelli Murray could do as she struggled to type the Pledge of Allegiance into her phone while steering a golf cart-sized vehicle around orange pylons as part of a teen driver-education class Tuesday morning. The course, at the Sheriff’s Safety Town, is one of several hands-on seminars planned this summer by the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s office to educate young people on the dangers of distracted and impaired driving.

“The funny thing is, I thought I was a good texter,” said Murray, who mowed down a few traffic cones during her test drive.

The C. E. Byrd High School student, who has a drivers’ license, also drove a golf cart while wearing dark goggles intended to simulate the vision of someone under the influence of narcotics at nighttime.

“I didn’t know where the cones were. It was one orange blurry line, so I just went for it and was swerving,” she said. “That was really horrifying.”

“I thought I was going left down there and apparently I was going right,” she added.

The Sheriff’s Safety Town has instructed approximately 200 teenagers on distracted and impaired driving since it began the classes in late 2011. Students drive a street-legal electric vehicle, provided by the North Shreveport Business Association, and wear various goggles issued by the Bossier City Marshal’s office and the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission. At least one similar course will be offered to the general public free of charge later this summer.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 10 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash, and the age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.

Lt. Richard Corbett, Sheriff’s Safety Town director, said the aim of the classes is to enlighten people on how badly they drive when their vision is warped or they’re not paying attention. He hopes it will prevent accidents. Attendance in the class does not suggest students have been in trouble for unsafe driving in the past, he said. All who have a learner’s permit or a valid drivers’ license are welcome to join.

“This can be seen as kind of a lagniappe to some of the drivers’ education courses out there,” he said. “This is something that maybe some of them don’t cover.”

There’s an element of peer pressure among teenagers to text while driving, Murray admitted. Young people send messages quickly on their phones and are irritated when others don’t reply immediately, she said.

“You don’t want to be that kid who’s like, ‘O.K., I’ll text you in a little bit when I get where I’m am going.’”

Murray added that using G.P.S. devices and trying to change songs on an iPod or CD are possibly even more common distractions than texting among drivers in her age group.

Emily Biernacki, 17, was flushed after completing the challenge course Tuesday. She’s personally known several local teenagers who have died behind the wheel due to distracted driving or being drunk since she’s been in high school.

Asked if teenage driving deaths prompt people at their schools to discuss safer habits on the road, Murray and Biernacki said no.

“No one says stuff about that,” said Murray. “It’s more like, ‘I can’t believe we knew them,’ not like ‘I can’t believe they were drunk.’”