Simulation steers Pennsylvania students straight

Upper St. Clair High School student drivers get a crash course in the perils of text messaging

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Narayan Thompson, 17, has his learner's permit but doesn't use it and is not eager to get his driver's license.

"I'm content with public transportation and walking," he said on Monday, after taking a turn on a texting-while-driving simulator at Upper St. Clair High School.

Based on his performance, that might not be a bad thing. Narayan crossed the center line, jumped a curb, stopped at a green light and eventually crashed. Other students ran into similar outcomes while reading and answering text messages generated by the simulator.

Simulators help teens learn dangers of texting while driving

A program at Upper St. Clair High school, sponsored by AT&T, uses simulaters to help students learn the dangers of texting while driving. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/5/2014)

Narayan upped the ante by also reading and answering a text message on his own phone (his buddy Dillon wanted to know "S'up?") as he drove the simulator and terrorized a make-believe metropolis.

The event was part of AT&T's national campaign to make students aware of the dangers of texting while driving, which one study has found to be the leading cause of death among teenagers, with 3,000 annual fatalities.

A Virginia Tech study concluded that texting drivers are 23 times more likely to crash. A car going 55 mph travels more than 100 yards in the time it typically takes to read or answer a text message.

"It's priceless," said Sheila Lloyd, assistant activities director at the high school, said of the display. "If we touch one student today and save a life, it's immeasurable."

Students were instructed to drive 30 to 35 mph, watching their progress on a screen that simulated what they would be seeing through the windshield. At various times, text messages came on the simulator's phone, and the drivers were instructed to read it aloud and answer it.

Ethan Loeb, a 14-year-old freshman who hasn't started driving for real, was asked by Griffin Hagler, AT&T's tour manager, to rate the danger of texting on a 10-point scale. He gave it an 8.

That was before he crashed the simulator into a utility pole as he tried to read a message. He revised his answer to "probably a 10."

Emily Celesti, 17, a junior, was doing fine when "Justin" texted her that "Oh man, I'm craving pizza ... what's your favorite pizza place." While reading it, she slowed to a stop well short of a traffic light, and her reply, Pizza Hut, came at the expense of sideswiping a bus.

She said she has texted once or twice in real life while stopped at a light but would never do it while moving. "I'd be afraid I'd crash. It scares me," she said.

"I think it's good that they're doing this at school, to show kids that don't even drive yet how dangerous it is," Emily said.

According to AT&T, 97 percent of teens surveyed said texting while driving is dangerous, but 75 percent said it was common among their friends.

Mr. Hagler, who travels the U.S. taking the simulator into schools, said "it's crash after crash no matter what city or state we're in. The end result for almost everyone is they crash or get pulled over for doing something illegal. What most people walk away with is that 1 or 2 seconds potentially changes your life forever."

AT&T spokeswoman Brandy Bell-Truskey said since the company started its "Texting and Driving ... It Can Wait" program in 2009, more than 4 million people have signed a pledge not to text and drive.

Texting while driving is illegal in Pennsylvania and a citation carries a $50 fine plus $102.50 in court costs.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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