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WHS students get distracted while driving in school

justine wettschreck/Daily Globe Drew Fornoff, a sophomore at Worthington High School, tries to operate a driving simulator while sending a text message at the same time. The simulator, from Minnesota AAA, was brought to the school as a SADD presentation by Worthington Police Officer Bob Fritz.

WORTHINGTON -- The car skidded through a stop sign, barely missed an oncoming vehicle and slid into the ditch. The driver groaned, glancing at the nearby cop.

"We arrest people every day for DWI for just that -- running a stop sign and sliding off the road," said Worthington Police Officer Bob Fritz.

No, Fritz wasn't chasing down a bad guy. He was sitting next to a student who had just crashed in a distracted driving simulator on Wednesday morning at Worthington High School.

At the request of the school's chapter of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), Fritz borrowed the simulator from Minnesota AAA so students could experience just how fast a moment of inattention can change someone's life.

The simulator is composed of a steering wheel and blinkers, gas and brake pedals, three computer screens and a control pad. The screens lined up horizontally act as the front windshield and both the driver and passenger side windows.

Fritz had control over what scenario student would experience -- a bright, sunny day or a rain-filled evening. During the simulation, he would ask the student to pull out a cell phone and compose a text message. At times, he would ask the "driver" to don a pair of goggles that simulated impaired driving.

"Oh, that was a red light you just went through, and you were almost T-boned by a school bus," Fritz told Drew Fornoff, a sophomore who was trying to text while wearing the impaired goggles. "The goggles simulate levels of intoxication, but you actually did worse while texting."

Doing his own part to add distractions, Fritz chatted constantly with the student operating the simulator.

"I'm hungry. Oh, red light, red light! You got any good music to listen to?" he chattered. "It's green now. It doesn't get any greener than that. Go, go, go."

While the students around him laughed, Fritz made his point.

"When you're driving, there are a lot of things going on around you," he told the students. "Even passengers in a car can be a distraction."

Construction equipment, a train, orange cones, a bicyclist, fire trucks and traffic signals -- all showed up in the simulation, as well as directions for the next turn. Students were to maintain a specific speed limit and be aware of their surroundings.

Emily Penning, a senior at WHS, has been involved with SADD since she was a freshman.

"We did the 'No Phone Zone' pledge last year," she said. "We try to hit subjects that affect our students. I don't think people realize how much texting affects their driving."

A lot of the students were excited about trying the simulator, she said, adding that she hoped it helped kids realize the ramifications behind distracted or impaired driving.

"A lot of times, until someone in your community dies, people don't take it seriously," Penning stated.

Caleb Dirksen, a sophomore who received his driver's license several months ago, said the simulation was rather realistic.

"Well, it's easier to turn your head and look out the side in real life," he explained. "Other than that, it's pretty close."

Fritz pointed out that several of the students successfully sent text messages without ever looking at their phone, but still had moments of distraction while digging the phone out of a pocket or a purse.

"Many of them are surprised at how fast something can happen," Fritz said. "In a split second, something comes along that can change their life."

The driving simulator will also be at the high school today.