Dangers of texting and driving simulated at concert

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When Brittany Scott got behind the wheel of a car for the first time, she hit a dog and a house while an onlooker yelled, "She's all over the road."

Brittany, 14, who's about to be a freshman at Pittsburgh Carrick High School, was among a handful of people who tested a texting-while-driving simulator before the American Idol Live! concert Aug. 14 at the Consol Energy Center.

She laughed about how terrible her first "driving" experience was but more somberly added later that the exercise reminded her "not to text and drive."

It was a message her mother, Mary Black, 34, of the South Side, said she was glad her daughter heard. "You hear about people getting killed," Ms. Black said.

PEERS Awareness, a Michigan-based company that uses simulators to teach lessons about safer living, partnered with AT&T this summer to travel to American Idol tour locations across the nation, spreading the message about the dangers of texting while driving.

Pennsylvania State Police, who must enforce a new law that bans texting while driving, said earlier this year that about 14,000 crashes in the state in 2010 involved distracted driving, and that people died in 68 of those collisions.

Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, in a study that has been cited by numerous government agencies, found that people who were texting while driving were 23 times more likely to crash or nearly crash than non-distracted drivers.

They also found that drivers who were texting spent 4.6 out of every 6 seconds staring at something other than the road, meaning that if they were traveling at 55 mph, they could travel the length of a football field without looking at the street.

Older participants said last week's simulation didn't perfectly mimic driving in real-life conditions, but that it did send a clear -- if unintentionally light-hearted -- message about texting while driving.

One by one, they sat in the front passenger seat of a Ford Fiesta, pulled goggles over their eyes and waited for instructions from a PEERS employee.

The car sat atop sensors that fed information from the car's gas pedal and brakes back to a computer, which kicked out a video-game-like image of the road on which they were "driving."

Family members and friends could watch from a TV screen as the "drivers" made their way slowly through a simulated, suburban neighborhood, many hitting houses, people and animals as they looked down at their own cell phones to send text messages.

Keith Rickabaugh, 43, of Seven Fields, said he didn't hit anything because he was an "expert driver" and the simulated car allowed him to go only 35 mph.

Still, he said, it reminded him of how, just a few days ago, he watched a woman crash her vehicle into a car. He thought she had been texting while driving.

Jessica Duca, 17, of Murrysville, was the first person to use the simulator.

Onlookers laughed while she cruised into a dog and a bicyclist. Jessica, who will be a senior at Franklin Regional High School and has been driving for about a year and a half, said it wasn't hard to use the video game, but at some points, she almost wanted to crash to send a message: "It's important to not text and drive."

neigh_west - neigh_north

Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1438. Twitter: @LizNavratil.


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