OGDEN — Eli Atkins, 17 and not licensed to drive, was clocked cruising at dangerously high speeds Wednesday. He admits he was also texting about weekend plans right before he struck and killed a virtual moose.
“I didn’t see the moose,” said the Ogden High School student who tested his texting-while-driving skills in a simulator car.
“The moose! The moose! Watch out for the moose,” Eli joked to students waiting to slip into the stationary car and put on the program’s virtual reality visor.
Juan Muñoz, 15, was texting when he drifted to one side, overcorrected and smashed into a barrier that was part of the simulator’s program.
“It was harder than I thought,” Juan said of texting and trying to steer. “It seemed pretty real. More people should do this, so they would know not to text and drive.”
Tristan Black, 16, was looking at his phone when the program had a car pull in front of him, causing a dramatic impact that shattered his virtual windshield.
“I feel like I’m never going to text and drive,” said Tristan, who signed a students’ pledge affirming that fact. “It seemed very real.”
The simulator travels to high schools around the country as part of a preventive education program, sponsored by AT&T.
The system features more than 30 ways to die, most common but others unexpected, such as hitting wildlife or speeding off a cliff.
It’s also possible to beat the system and survive to the finish line, although speeding and other traffic violations will still appear on a large viewing screen for dozens of classmates to see.
The large crowd cheered when one student survived his virtual trip, but most of the simulator’s drivers did not make it to the finish line. “Fatally distracted” drivers drew laughter or sympathetic groans from fellow students.
Ogden High Assistant Principal Kelly Muncy said he watched multiple groups go through, and most of the students seemed to take the message to heart.
“I think this really shows kids how out of control you are when you text and drive,” he said.
“A few people get away with doing it, but this demonstrates they are living on borrowed time. I would hope our students would remember this lesson and maybe save lives.”
Before trying out the simulator, students watched a 10-minute film, “The Last Text,” which showed interviews with texting-and-driving survivors.
One young woman felt tremendous guilt about a text she sent her sister, who looked down to read the text, “Yeah,” and died the day before her high school graduation.
A young man who considered himself an expert texter talked about looking down briefly to send a text, “lol,” and hitting a bicyclist who died on the spot.
Dane Tom, an Ogden High School auto instructor, said when he taught at an Arizona school, he knew of four students who died because of driving and texting.
“I believe most of these students do know the danger of texting and driving, but they get caught up in the electronic world of texting, Facebooking and blogging,” he said.
“Back when I was in high school, the only choices were to call someone on a land line, knock on their front door or write them a letter. It’s a different world. The biggest tragedy is, people know texting and driving is dangerous, but they don’t stop.”
Jim Cook, also an OHS automotive instructor, hopes the lesson will stick.
“From what I have been hearing, this has been a very positive experience for the students. I think it will stay with them for a while.”
Brad Parker, OHS technology and engineering teacher, admitted some students might view the experience as similar to playing a video game.
“Is it a real-life scenario? No,” he said. “Does it make kids think? I would say yes. It’s not real life, but it does illustrate that distractions make a driver less alert and less aware.”
Back at the simulator, Drew Rentmeister, 16, exited the car alive after swerving and crashing hard into a virtual wall.
“I just got my license six days ago. This seemed pretty real,” he said.
“It’s scary, because I have glanced back and forth, looking at my phone, but looking down can end it. I don’t text while I’m driving, but I do when I’m stopped at an intersection.
“I know my phone pretty well, but this will make me think twice about texting at all while I’m driving.”