More than 600 students from across the state attended the Virginia High School League’s Student Leaders Conference last weekend at Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge.
In addition to attending workshops on public speaking, economics and local legislature, students tested their ability to text while driving in a simulation provided by Unite International’s Arrive Alive Tour. The simulation, sponsored by the Allstate Foundation, gave students the chance to experience the dangers of distracted driving in a safe, controlled environment.
“It was scary,” said Maddie Stanley, 16, of Broadway High School near Harrisonburg. “I killed two people, and I didn’t send a text yet.”
Sitting inside a silver Hyundai outfitted with a video simulation, students wore goggles and were instructed to pull out their cellphones and send a legible text while steering, accelerating and braking. At the end of the two-minute course, they received a citation listing their infractions, which included running red lights, swerving and hitting pedestrians.
It takes an average of 4.6 seconds to send or retrieve a text message, Unite tour team leader Patrick Sheehy said. It’s the equivalent of driving the length of a football field, he said.
Sheehy and Unite’s operations officer Joshua Hull shared sobering statistics with the students. Distracted driving is the number one cause of accidents, they said. And, for every accident caused by a drunk driver, there are four caused by distracted driving.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving is “any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving,” including texting, using a cellphone and talking to passengers. Texting is especially dangerous because it “requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver,” the agency says.
Del. Richard L. Anderson (R-Prince William), who participated in a conference workshop and tried the distracted driving simulation, recently sponsored a bill that he said adds teeth to Virginia’s texting-while-driving laws. The bill, which he said is sitting on Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s desk, would make driving while texting a primary offense and substantially increase the penalties for violating the law. It would elevate driving while texting to the same level as driving while intoxicated, Anderson said.
In a survey after the simulation, 74 percent of the students said they would never drive drunk or while distracted. They were also encouraged to sign a pledge to not text and drive.
Gar-Field student Rebecca Gyasi, 18, signed the pledge although she said she has never texted while driving. “I actually learned that if I text and drive, I’ll die. I’ve seen what it’s done,” she said.