CR students learn to cope with dangers of driving

Caesar Rodney High School student Shyanne MacFarlane rides a four-wheel bike while wearing goggles that simulate a .08 blood alcohol level as drivers education teacher Jessica Reynolds looks on at Caesar Rodney High School on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Learning to drive a car can often be an exciting and invigorating time for high school students.

However, with the increased pressures facing young drivers such as cell phones, traffic on the roadways, the potential for alcohol or drug use and peer pressure in general, it can also be a scary time for both the students and their parents alike.

That’s why Darrell Gravatt, the department chairman of Caesar Rodney High School’s Driver’s Education program, invited the SmartDrive Foundation and its Distraction and Reaction program to the school on Wednesday.

“It’s all about having fun but learning a serious message,” Mr. Gravatt said. “It’s a positive way for them to experience what it’s like to be distracted, what it’s like to be chemically imbalanced, but in a safe environment.

“It’s a day they will definitely remember for the rest of their lives.”

It’s important to promote safe habits to young drivers early considering that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 14- to 18-year-olds in the United States, according to the national Office of Highway Safety.

There are more than 33,000 licensed teen drivers in Delaware and, while teen drivers account for 5 percent of all drivers in the state, they are involved in about 15 percent of all reportable crashes in Delaware, according to statistics from the state highway safety agency.

Caesar Rodney High School student McKenzie Hutson rides a four-wheel bike while wearing goggles that simulate a .08 blood alcohol level during the Smart Drive Foundation’s Distraction and Reaction program at Caesar Rodney High School on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The dangers that young drivers face became a stark reality last Friday for Anthony James Penna, a 17-year-old from Archmere Academy in Claymont, along with his family and friends.

Mr. Penna was driving a Jeep with his 16-year-old sister in the passenger seat, traveling on Kennett Pike in Greenville, when his vehicle crossed the center line and collided head-on with an Audi, according to Delaware State Police.

Mr. Penna was removed from life support and died on Tuesday.

Tackling a serious issue

SmartDrive instructors spoke to six driver’s education classes at Caesar Rodney throughout the day on Wednesday — a total of around 180 students — about defensive driving and limiting the dangers of the road.

CR driver’s education teachers Mr. Gravatt, Jeff Gravatt, Jessica Reynolds and Matt Millman spent the day helping to oversee SmartDrive’s different initiatives.

“What we have here is actually four different activities and five stations,” said Pete Booker, executive director of SmartDrive. “All of this together is a course that we call ‘Distraction and Reaction.’

“The idea is to give these young people an idea how distractions and impairment can affect your ability to drive successfully.”

Students got behind the wheel on Wednesday and participated in activities, both motorized and pedal-powered, that demonstrated first-hand the dangers of distraction and other forms of impairment while driving.

Other activities included “Are You Too Impaired To Baggo?,” a bean bag game that tested the students’ fine motor skills in both unimpaired and impaired conditions using googles to simulate impairment from alcohol and marijuana.

There was also a Vehicle Scavenger Hunt to familiarize the future drivers with the safety features and other equipment on modern vehicles.

“It’s all kind of hard, but it’s still fun,” said Amirah Fields, a sophomore. “I’ve driven in parking lots but haven’t been out on the road yet. It’s harder than what I thought it was going to be.”

Sophomore Kyle Longo crushed a traffic cone while driving a golf cart as an instructor persistently kept asking him questions.

“It’s really interesting,” Longo said. “It’s kind of hard for me because this is my first time driving. I’ve never driven like a lawnmower or golf cart.

“This was my first time behind the wheel, so it was interesting. It was a little bit scary. I was nervous at first. I did hit that cone pretty well but I want to drive and I’m looking forward to it.”

Distracted driving a dilemma

Distracted driving tends to be a bigger issue for younger drivers than older ones, though all drivers are at risk.

In a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, teen drivers were found to be two-and-a-half times more likely to engage in one or more potentially risky behaviors when driving with one peer compared to driving alone.

The same study showed the likelihood of teen drivers engaging in one or more risky behaviors when traveling with multiple passengers increased to three times.

In fact, research showed the risk of a fatal crash goes up in direct relation to the number of teenagers in the car.

Mr. Booker’s program brought awareness to this particular issue when students were put in golf carts and they drove around a small course while instructors tried to distract them.

“We might ask them to spell their name backwards or give me your home zip code and what does that add up to?,” he said. “Typically, they get very frustrated. They realize that you can’t focus on the important act of driving while trying to do anything else whatsoever.”

Teens at risk for DUI death

Driving impaired while under the influence of drugs and alcohol is also a potentially lethal issue that teen drivers can face.

In fact, the NHTSA reports that teens are more likely than anyone else to be killed in an alcohol-related crash. In 2014, 621 people died nationwide in crashes in which teen drivers had alcohol in their system.

Even though the minimum legal drinking age in every state is 21, the NHTSA’s numbers showed that among 15- to 19-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2014, 20 percent of the drivers had been drinking.

It also cautioned that drugs other than alcohol — illicit as well as prescribed and over-the-counter — can affect driving.

Instructors strapped impairment goggles on the Caesar Rodney students and had them take to a serpentine figure-eight course in pedal carts in an effort to give the students a feel for what it’s like to drive impaired.

“Our impairment vision goggles simulate the effect on your vision of a .08-blood alcohol level, which is legally drunk in the state of Delaware,” Mr. Booker said. “So they see how driving a vehicle, even a simple vehicle like this, can be affected.

“Then we always remind them, all this does is affect your vision. Complete impairment cuts your reaction time by more than half, makes you drowsy and ruins your ability to make decisions.”

The impairment exercise was one that really grabbed the attention of the students.

“They struggle with the impairment,” Darrell Gravatt said. “They notice the difference but they like the challenge. It’s a fun way for them to experience serious dangers of drugs, alcohol and driving distracted.”

More than DUI and distractions

Inexperienced drivers face a whole litany of challenges once they get behind the wheel of a vehicle.

“There is a lot more pressure … cars go a lot faster, there’s many more cars and big highways, there’s crazy drivers and more intensity, so what we do is try to prepare the kids,” said Mr. Booker, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of getting his driver’s license in August.

“Knowing the basic mechanics of driving is one thing, but understanding mentally, emotionally, the kind of maturity you have to have, the expectation level, the seriousness, because of all these things, that’s a whole other dimension.”

Other issues that young drivers tend to struggle with are things such as talking and texting on a cellphone, speeding and driving without a seatbelt.

NHTSA noted that dialing a phone while driving increases a teen’s risk of crashing by six times and texting while driving increases the risk by 23 times.
Talking or texting on the phone takes focus off the task of driving, and makes their reaction time similar to that of a 70-year-old driver who is not using a phone.

Speeding is also critical issue for young drivers.

In 2014, it was a factor for 30 percent of teen drivers involved in fatal crashes. A study by GHSA found that from 2000-2011 there were 19,447 speed-related crashes involving teen drivers.

Seat-belt usage is also lowest among young drivers 16- to 24-years-old. In fact, the majority of teenagers involved in fatal crashes are unbuckled.
In 2014, 53 percent of teens 15- to 19-years-old that were killed in passenger vehicle crashes were not wearing a seat belt.

Mr. Booker said there is one common theme that leads to most of the troubles behind the wheel for younger drivers.

“Kids don’t understand how their driving could possibly lead to the death of them or another person,” he said. “They think they’re invincible.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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