Distracted Driver

Effingham High School junior Josh McWhorter attempts to text while driving during a simulation exercise in his driver’s education class.

By Kim Jansen
News Report Staff
As Effingham High School junior Josh McWhorter approached the stop light, he looked down to text a quick response to a message he had received.
A second later, he had caused a crash when he rear-ended the vehicle in front of him, resulting in over $2,000 worth of damage and traffic tickets totaling nearly $400.
Luckily for McWhorter, the event did not actually take place in real-life, but rather was a simulation exercise in his driver’s education class at EHS.
McWhorter was one of the many driver’s ed students that participated in the distracted driving simulator exercise, where students drive a video-style car and are asked to complete tasks on a cell phone.
“I didn’t think at first it would be a big deal because I was only texting a few letters,” said McWhorter. “But then three seconds later, I hammered someone in the back.”
McWhorter added the simulator is harder than it looks, sending the message that drivers should turn off their cell phones while operating their vehicle.
Instructor Chris Fleener, who has been teaching driver’s ed for 20 years at the high school, said that is exactly what the simulator is supposed to do — make kids think twice about using their cell phones while driving.
“It’s a very good simulator that shows kids what could happen when they are distracted when they are driving,” said Fleener. “It presents real-life situations that can take place.”
Through the simulator, students are asked to text or call somebody while driving, and then during that time, obstacles are placed in front of them that they have to avoid.
“With the simulator, they are really trying hard not to hit somebody or not to run a stop sign. They struggle following basic directions on it because they are trying to dial or text somebody,” said Fleener. “The simulator does a good job throwing things out there that they are not expecting.”
After a student is in a wreck, the simulator then shows the result of the incident, including the amount of damage and other hardships. If someone is fatally injured as a result, the driver is taken to court where he or she has to hear from the victim’s family about their loss.
“It shows that it takes just a split second to be distracted and for you to be in a wreck that could kill someone,” said Fleener. “It is just another reminder for them to be safe while they are driving.”
Having taught hundreds of young drivers over the years, Fleener said today’s students are much different than the students he taught earlier in his career, when young driver’s didn’t have as many distractions.
“Twenty years ago, young drivers were more focused. They paid attention more, and they really wanted their driver’s license,” he said. “Now, with cell phones, it is a habit for kids to want to answer every call and to want to answer every text.
“Cell phones are just so much of a distraction, and kids use them so much to communicate to their friends and to look up stuff. They just can’t hardly not answer. It has become a habit,” Fleener added.
According to Fleener, it is also very important for adults to set good examples and to not use their mobile devices while operating a vehicle.
“If they see their parents do it, then they think it is ok for them to do it,” said Fleener. “The bottom line is people need to put their cell phones down and keep their eyes on the road.”
EHS Principal Kurt Roberts agreed cell phones have drastically changed the way we communicate.
“We have grown accustomed to being able to communicate a thought or an idea the instant that we have it. It does not matter where or when that happens. This is a social norm for everybody, not just teenagers,” said Roberts “However, it is hard for teenagers to break the accepted norm of the instant need to communicate and to not communicate when driving.”
The simulator, which was setup at the school through Weis Insurance Agency and State Auto Insurance Company, addresses what has become a major expense for insurance agencies.
“Insurance companies have major losses because people are texting while driving,” said Tim Weis, of Weis Insurance Agency. “There is a huge change in insurance agencies going on. It’s global.”
Weis said insurance agencies have seen an increase in claims related to cell phone use and distracted driving, which will eventually lead to increases in insurance costs to cover those losses.
Weis said using cell phones has become the norm for many people, especially when drivers are in their hometowns and are familiar with their surroundings. However, Weis said that doesn’t change the fact that unexpected obstacles could lead to a crash.
The solution to the problem is simple, according to Weis. “Stop texting and driving,” he said
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving led to 3,477 deaths and 291,000 injuries in 2015. It also estimates 660,000 drivers use devices while driving during the day.