Go-Cart, Vehicle-of-Choice in Driver's Ed

The teenage driver hit the brakes, trying to miss the children playing in the parking lot, but several were struck.

Other teens missed the children but slammed into the curb; some drove over the curb before finally coming to a stop.

Their peers jeered at their driving skills, but it was no laughing matter.

Fortunately, it was only a simulated demonstration — and no one was injured.

The serious dangers of distracted and impaired driving were driven home when 25 teens took turns behind the wheel of a special vehicle Wednesday afternoon at Norfolk High School.

The vehicle is the Nebraska Safety Council’s new Simulated Impaired Driving Experience (SIDNE) go-cart, which has two driving modes: normal and impaired.

The vehicle, made possible by a grant from State Farm, is designed to show the driver how difficult it is to drive safely while distracted by a cellphone or impaired by alcohol, said Mary Weich-Blunck, driver education coordinator of the Lincoln-based safety council.

“This is not a toy,” she told the students. “I want you to treat it as a real car.”

One by one, each student in the driver’s education class — all who have their learner’s permits — donned a helmet and safety glasses and fastened their seat belt before navigating an obstacle course in a parking lot.

About three dozen 6-inch fluorescent orange cones were arranged over the course to  represent children and vehicles.

Operating a remote-controlled laser, Weich-Blunck could switch the battery-powered go-cart from the normal mode to the impaired mode, causing the student driver to suddenly misjudge turns, speed and braking distances — and strike or drive over cones.

Trooper Bill Price of O’Neill, also assisted in running the remote control — and experienced a close call when one driver lost control of the go-cart when it went into impaired mode.

He described SIDNE as “a great tool.”

“Hands-on always seems to be more impacting than lecturing” on such topics as distracted driving, said Price, who has coordinated safety education efforts for Troop B in 23 counties for 12 years.

“Distracted driving is a huge problem,” he said. “There are so many opportunities to drive distracted,” citing such electronics as iPods and smartphones. “I have teenagers,” he said. “I know what they do.”

“Distracted driving is now as bad as drunken driving,” Price said. In the five seconds a driver has his eyes diverted or closed, a vehicle at 55 mph will travel the length of a football, he said.

Kory Reestman, a Norfolk High sophomore, hit a cone and the curb. He said it was difficult to turn the steering wheel when the go-cart was suddenly switched to the impaired mode.

Colby Spence, a Norfolk High junior, agreed. “It was hard to judge how far it’s (the go-cart) going to go and how quickly (in the impaired mode),” he said. “It makes you realize how easily losing control can happen.”

Last year in Nebraska, teen drivers were involved in 13 percent of the crashes involving alcohol and 27 percent of all crashes that involved cellphone distraction, said Weich-Blunck who coordinates driver’s education courses throughout the state.

Children model what their parents do, said the Pierce native who was employed by Nucor in Norfolk before joining the Nebraska Safety Council in 2004.

Almost all of the students’ hands went up when she asked them if they had seen their parents drink any kind of a beverage while driving. More than half of the hands were raised when asked if their parents eat while driving. A few hands were shown when asked if their parents use their cellphones while driving.

If they see their parents on their cellphones while driving, Weich-Blunck told the students to ask them: “Do you love me?”

When they say yes, then the student is to say, “ ‘Then, Mom, if you truly love me, get off your cellphone.’ If your mom truly loves you, she won’t be distracted,” Weich-Blunck said. “That call can wait. That text can wait.”

Mike Hart, principal at Norfolk Junior High School, and his son, Austin, 14, also had the chance to drive SIDNE. Austin said the lessons he learned were: “Do not drive drunk or with a distraction.”

Hart said his son’s test drive “was good for him to understand that you have to pay attention 100 percent of the time. A temporary lapse of focus can create permanent hardship for people. Experience is the best teacher.”

Weich-Blunck said Norfolk High School was only the third high school in the state to utilize SIDNE. The go-cart made its debut at a Lincoln school last fall and late last month was at Fremont High.

Next Wednesday a training course will be conducted in Norfolk to teach volunteer instructors the SIDNE curriculum as part of the State Farm grant, she said.

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By Erin B 07/12/2012 09:01:00
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