Texting, driving don't mix

Texting and driving can kill, even in the virtual world. Jacob Grigsby collected four speeding tickets, then crashed the car he was driving while texting on his cell phone.

Alissa Saari, a junior at Northwestern High School, tries to type a text message while driving during a virtual reality simulation Friday at the high school. Most of the students who attempted to drive while texting on the P.E.E.R.S. Distracted Driving Simulator crashed within 30 seconds. Students Against Destructive Decisions and the student council teamed up to bring the program to school to increase awareness of the dangers of texting while driving. (Maria Lockwood)

Texting and driving can kill, even in the virtual world. Jacob Grigsby collected four speeding tickets, then crashed the car he was driving while texting on his cell phone.

Later, Timothea Stinnett spent 15 seconds behind the wheel, tapping out a message, before slamming into a pedestrian.

A crash ended Michael Breitung's ride after he floored it and got the car going 80 miles per hour while trying to text at the same time.

"It was just hard," Grigsby said of the virtual driving simulation, and it made a real-life impact on students at Northwestern High School on Friday.

"They're really talking about it a lot," said Lisa Wise, a school secretary.


One by one, students entered the P.E.E.R.S. Awareness Distracted Driving Simulator on Friday. They buckled in, put on a pair of virtual reality goggles and began to drive. While driving, technicians asked them to type out texts on their cell phones. One by one, they crashed, usually within the first 30 seconds. Classmates lined up in front of a video monitor linked to the goggles to watch each student's attempt, getting a first-hand view of each crash.

"It's really touchy," said junior Alissa Saari after taking a turn behind the wheel. "It's not super realistic, but you get the point."

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2009, 16 percent of teen drivers involved in a fatal crash were reported to have been distracted, according to the U.S. government's site.

Texting while driving "is becoming a little bit of an epidemic," said P.E.E.R.S. event technician Jason Graham, who was at Northwestern on Friday. He likened the slowed response time from texting while driving to that experienced by drivers who are alcohol-impaired, citing a 2009 "Car and Driver" magazine article.

The school's Students Against Destructive Decisions teamed up with the Student Council and Northwestern Activities Club to bring the simulator to Maple.

"I think the importance of bringing it here was just so students can see that this is something that happens every day," said Grigsby, student council president and co-president for SADD. "The students are laughing because their friends are swerving all over the road but every now and then one of the guys will turn and say, 'You have to realize (distracted driving) accidents are the No. 1 killer of teens in America.'"

"And he just says you got to take this to heart and know that people actually do this and they end up getting in serious wrecks," Grigsby said.

The point of the simulation was to make students aware of the danger of texting while driving, said Alie Larson, junior class president.


"It's one of those things that does cause a lot of accidents," she said.

Grigsby said he used to text and drive occasionally, but he doesn't anymore. Last year's mock crash, also put on by SADD, convinced him to be a safer driver.

"You have to wear your seat belt, take all these precautions, try to drive safe," Grigsby said.

In conjunction with the simulator, SADD plans to bring Rita Ronchi in to speak to students.

In June of 2006, the then-Northwestern High School senior was severely injured in a head-on collision on U.S. Highway 2. Ronchi survived, graduated with the rest of her class and achieved more than most thought possible. Now a student at the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, she is a public speaker, an artist and a piano player. She will share her story with students at Northwestern High School on April 9.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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