The students of Johnstown High School are prolific texters.
They probably don’t use cellphones any more than students of other schools, but according to Principal Michael Beatty, texting rivals actual speech at the high school as a form of teenage communication.
“They can’t use their phones during the school day,” he said, “but just stand outside a classroom when that last bell rings and observe. Every kid is looking down at their phones.”
The practice doesn’t really bother him, but all too often, he said, phones are used while driving. Thursday morning, he welcomed Arrive Alive, a drivers’ safety education team, to the school, hoping their demonstrations might prevent future car accidents.
Outside the high school, Arrive Alive team leader Patrick Sheehy and tech assistant James Pratt set up a small Hyundai on wheel sensors, wiring the gas and brake pedals to a laptop as they have in countless locations across the country.
“We want to give teens an idea of what’s actually happening when they’re driving drunk or trying to text,” Sheehy said.
Students wore virtual reality goggles and attempted to drive a digital course. Their mostly failed attempts were projected on a big screen for fellow students to see.
To simulate drunken driving, actions were delayed within the program, much like they are in a drunk person’s brain.
The sight of virtually inebriated English teacher Eric Logan driving full-speed into a parked car raised laughter from a few of his students, but drunken driving wasn’t the event’s only message.
A recent Centers For Disease Control survey showed that texting while driving now kills more teens than drunken driving, Sheehy said. Counting fender-benders along with the fatalities, teens get into four times more accidents because of their phones than because of alcohol.
“Look at it this way,” he said. “Would you rather ride with someone who’s had three beers or with a guy wearing a blindfold? It’s that simple.”
He said even the best texters take their eyes off the road for three seconds per character of a message. As a demonstration, Emily Munson, a senior with considerable skills in both driving and texting, got behind the wheel.
She fitted the virtual goggles and stepped on the gas. On Pratt’s mark, she attempted a simple two-line text, something any teen could manage.
“You’re up to 51 in a 45 zone,” Pratt said, “and you’re swerving.”
Munson technically passed the test by not killing anyone, but Pratt said her speed would have attracted police attention.
During the course of the day, scores of students were shuttled through the parked Hyundai simulator, and everyone was shown a video compilation of horrible real-life crashes caused by texting or drinking.
Most of the students were already in agreement with Arrive Alive’s message. Munson, for example, said she locks her phone and puts it in the cup holder to avoid the urge to text. Seventeen-year-old Jared Smith, who was caught swerving wildly in the driving simulation, said he does the same.
“I can honestly say I’ve never texted while driving,” he said, “but I just have my learner’s permit, so I always have someone with me.”
According to Sheehy, nearly all of the kids were lying.
“Everyone here has or will text and drive,” he said. “I’ve texted while driving, but it’s amazing how many of them will deny it.”
Among the many students busily denying dangerous habits, there was at least one telling the truth. Kambry Shea, 17, didn’t need any convincing to stay off her phone. She doesn’t currently have a license or learner’s permit, but when she does get behind the wheel, she plans to be the world’s most responsible driver.
“One of my best friends was texting and driving two years ago,” she said. “He collided with another teen who was also texting. He spent six months in a coma.”
Time will tell whether the demonstration influences the rest of the student population.
“I’m not naive enough to think every single one of these kids will go through this and never text and drive again,” Beatty said, “but if we can just get a few of them, that’s good enough.”