Driven to distraction

Posted on October 31, 2012 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The CHP has a message for young drivers, and the officers don’t email, text or tweet it. They deliver it straight out: distracted driving is dangerous. Using a device, answering the phone, even opening the sunroof, takes your eyes, and your concentration, off the road.

And that’s when you become a statistic.

In 2010, 3,092 people were killed, and an estimated additional 416,000 were injured, in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver (according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). The figures are even more alarming for young drivers, as 11 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes in 2010 were reported as distracted at the time of the accident.

“Texting is about the same as a DUI,” said CHP officer Garrett Roy. If you’re not concentrating, your ability to plan and react drops significantly. “We’re seeing it in more and more accidents.”

At a controlled hands-on driving event at the raceway in Sonoma, seven high school and college students learned the dangers of distracted driving.

For the simulation, students completed a high-speed lane change drill, as well as a timed course during which they handled basic in-car distractions, including sending a one-word text message, adjusting the radio and opening the sunroof.

On a closed course, their cars knocked over rubber cones. On the highway, any of those errors would likely have been a collision or a crash.

Jared Cambridge, a senior at Mesa Verde in Citrus Heights, thought it would be a lot easier. “It was surprisingly difficult,” said the 17-year-old. “There wasn’t much time to think.”

He said he doesn’t use the phone while driving, but worries about all his friends who do. The biggest threat to teenage drivers? “Other stupid people on the road.”

Instructors from the Simraceway Performance Driving Center, which is based at the raceway, oversaw and rode with all participants.

“We saw the impact of in-car distractions as it became more difficult for drivers to control the car,” noted Jared Thompson, a Simraceway instructor. Even for tech-savvy students there was huge difference between the lap times and number of errors committed when drivers were distracted, compared to when they were focused on driving.

“And this was in a controlled environment,” Thompson said. “How much harder is it going to be in the real world, with real dangers?”

It’s not all about phones. A distraction is anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road. Tuning the radio, setting the GPS, reaching in the back seat… if you look away from the freeway for three seconds, you’ve driven blind for nearly 200 feet.

“When you look at the statistics and the amount of kids who get injured from texting and driving it really makes you realize how dangerous it is,” said CJ Lyons, a junior at Marin Catholic High. “I really learned a lot today.”

The raceway partnered with St. Joseph Health of Sonoma County, Simraceway, Farmers Insurance and the CHP on the first-time event.

Afterwards, there was pizza. Nobody ate a slice driving home.

– Val Robichaud

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