By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BENSONHURST — No one was injured in any of the car accidents that took place at New Utrecht High School on the morning of June 4. That’s because accidents weren’t real. They took place on a simulator that had been set up in a classroom at the school at 1601 80th St.
On the simulator, one student driver collided, head-on, into another car. Another teen struck and killed a deer on a country road. Still another hit a stop sign and lost control of the wheel.
The students learned a lesson about the importance of paying attention behind the wheel.
James Vavas, an agent with Nationwide Insurance, brought the simulator to the school and had students get behind a fake wheel to test their driving skills on a simulated country road. There was a twist, however. The simulator, which looked like a computer screen, offered up several distractions to test the driver’s ability to pay attention to the road.
There was the voice of a teenage girl as the passenger who blurted out directions. The voice requested that the driver call her brother on a cell phone. And when the line was busy, the passenger asked the driver to send her brother a text message.
Students took turns getting behind the wheel and driving the girl home. Nearly all of the teens wound up getting into accidents because they had trouble concentrating on the road due to all of the distractions. Only one student made it all the way to the destination. But that student drove all over the road, including crossing the double yellow line back and forth several times.
“You don’t realize how distracted you are when you’re driving. You think you can send a text to someone with no problem. But it’s very dangerous because your reaction time is compromised,” Vavas told the students.
New Utrecht Principal Maureen Goldfarb said she was amazed at the fake accidents.
“It’s one thing to hear the statistics about text messaging and driving. It’s another to see how easy it is to get into a serious accident,” she said.
Vavas came New Utrecht High School with his simulator at the request of Councilman Vincent Gentile.
“When students take the wheel of the driving simulator and are then asked to perform various tasks using their cell phone, it soon becomes obvious that even the slightest distraction will impair your ability to safely maintain control of your vehicle,” Gentile said
Before using the simulator, each student was asked to sign a pledge stating that they will drive responsibly and understand the dangers involved with distracted driving.
Andrew Gounardes, Democratic candidate for state Senate and a former aide to Gentile, suggested to the councilman that he ask Vavas to visit the school.
“The distracted driving simulator was especially interesting to me because my family has been affected by the consequences of unsafe driving,” Gounardes said. “In 1954, my grandmother was involved in a car accident with another car that left her hospitalized for several months. Her daughter Vivian died in the accident. When I was learning to drive as a teenager, I was always mindful of this bit of family history.
“But as with all things, unless you can speak from experience, it’s hard to put into perspective the consequences of getting into an accident, especially to a teenager who otherwise thinks they know everything,” Gounardes said. “I was (and am) a pretty careful driver, but you can never drive too safely. When James first mentioned that Nationwide had a distracted driving simulator, I immediately thought it would be a great tool to use in schools, so I called Councilman Gentile and asked if he would be interested in sponsoring this program.”
Here are some statistics Vavas pointed to about the dangers of becoming distracted while driving:
Distraction from cell phone use while driving extends a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent.
The number one source of driver inattention is use of a wireless device.
Drivers who use cell phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Driving while distracted is a factor in 25 percent of police-reported crashes.
For more information, visit Nationwide Insurance’s website at www.nationwide.com/newsroom/dwd-facts-figures.jsp.