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Driven to distraction

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LCSO's Teen Driver Improvement Course shows dangers of distracted, impaired driving

By Sean Arnold

It’s difficult enough coping with the challenges of being a new driver on the road.

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When you add the kind of distractions and impairments teen drivers might be susceptible to, the effects can be insurmountable.

The Teen Driver Improvement Course, put on annually for 11 years by the Levy County Sheriff’s Office, aims to educate prospective and current young drivers on the dangers of texting while driving and driving under the influence of alcohol.

The four-hour program includes a mix of instructional elements, including videos and a Powerpoint presentation and a golf cart driving course that puts into action what it means to drive while texting or while impaired by alcohol.

The students make three passes in a golf cart through a path of cones in the parking lot of their local school. The first trip is done with hands on the wheel under normal conditions. For the next ride, a deputy hands driver a phone and calls out numbers for him or her to dial while navigating between cones.

Finally, the students are issued a pair of goggles – commonly referred to as “drunk goggles – which simulate the kind of disorientation one might experience while impaired by alcohol behind the wheel. The effect is like wearing the most ill-suited prescription glasses one can imagine, with one’s depth perception and field location of objects totally scrambled.

“We tell the kids this is (analogous to) 0.08 (blood alcohol content),” said Deputy school resource officer John Gulledge, who helped teach the course for the first time this summer. A 0.08 percent BAC is considered legally impaired. “This is not how it looks when you’re drunk, but this is how hard your brain has to work to decide depth perception and balance and coordination.

“Your brain is telling yourself one thing and you know something totally different. Your brain is telling you there’s a cone there, even if there’s not.”

The final course of the summer was held at Chiefland Middle High School last Thursday. It’s offered multiple times at schools throughout the county – Chiefland, Bronson, Cedar Key, Yankeetown and Williston – and is also offered through driver’s education courses. Students who complete it are credited with community service hours – good for scholarships – and in some instances receive discounts on school parking passes and on auto insurance.

The lessons learned provide the most value of course.

“I tried to imagine the video game Grand Theft Auto, where if the character is drunk I have to concentrate more,” said Cole Carter after driving with the goggles at CMHS. “But games aren’t real life.”

Most participants are hopeless when it comes to the goggles.

“I couldn’t see anything,” Irene Russell said. “I think I hit every cone out there. I wasn’t sure if I was still on the course.”

“The phone wasn’t as difficult as I thought because you can slow down a little bit, but the goggles were insane,” Ethan Hatfield said.

Before hitting the outdoor course, the students watch video Red Asphalt, a video you can find on Youtube which shows graphic depictions from auto accidents. The course wraps up with another video, The Truth About Drinking, which shows a group of kids getting to see what it might look like through the eyes of their loved ones if they were part of a fatal car crash due to drunk driving.

After viewing the video, the students are asked to write a letter to their parents, imagining what their message would be if they died in an auto accident because of distracted or impaired driving.

Levy SRO Keith OSteen says it’s an emotional exercise for many students.

“They think about what they would tell their parents if they made a decision that costs them their life,” he said. “Some kids write a short paragraph, and some write front and back.

“Some of them cry.”