While driving down a neighborhood street, Kelsie Weber looked down at her phone to fire off a text message. Soon after, a child ran out from the sidewalk toward the car’s passenger side.
She looked up, saw the child and slammed on the brakes, but it was too late.
Luckily for Kelsie, a 17-year-old senior at Billings Central Catholic High, it was all part of a demonstration from a nonprofit group about the dangers of drinking or texting while driving.
“I thought I was OK at texting and driving,” Kelsie said. “But obviously I’m not. I won’t do that anymore.”
To drive the point home, the PEERS Foundation, with help from State Farm Insurance, brought a full-sized car into the Central gym. There, they would hook students up to a pair of goggles and a real car that simulated a driving environment and, if chosen, the effects of drinking on sight and reaction time.
“It really simulates what it’s like to be driving when you’re intoxicated,” said Eli Scheele, a PEERS event technician who walked students through the demonstration.
Scheele said that distracted or drunken driving accounts for more than half of all traffic fatalities in the United States and that 18 percent of distracted driving crashes involve teens.
That, he said, is why demonstrations like the simulator are so important in teaching teens the danger of such behavior.
“I’ve had a lot of students here tell me that they’re not going to let their friends text and drive,” he said. “We have to teach them that, while it may be more socially acceptable, it’s still distracting.”
Hundreds of Central students went through the demonstration Tuesday. If they weren’t in the simulator, they could watch a real-time video of what the student in the car was seeing and doing, as well as get a tally of how many traffic laws were broken.
Jeff Malby, a physical education teacher at Central and the girls basketball coach, said the demonstration got through to plenty of students.
“Their eyes, a lot of them, were wide open when they got out,” he said. “I don’t think they expected it to be like that.”
He added that it’s a good opportunity to reinforce those lessons for students at Central, since the school doesn’t offer its own drivers’ education program.
For Kelsie, the simulator was helpful, but she said videos playing next to it really hit home. They featured interviews with and stories from people affected by drunken or distracted driving.
“Seeing the results of those, it actually gives you an idea of the people it hurts,” she said. “To see those results, it made it real.”