By Elise Franco
A driving simulator put Austintown Fitch students in a virtual driver’s seat and let them experience firsthand the pitfalls of distracted or impaired driving.
Throughout the day Friday, about 300 juniors and seniors at Fitch High School participated in or watched classmates operate a distracted- driving simulator owned by the Ohio Department of Transportation.
Maribeth McGlynn, senior guidance counselor, said Fitch was a target school for ODOT because of its large student population.
McGlynn said kids always hear about the dangers of distracted driving but often, they don’t take heed until an accident happens.
“I don’t think at this age they fully understand the true dangers of not having full control of their vehicle,” she said. “They sometimes think they’re invincible.”
A ban on texting while driving went into effect Thursday in Pennsylvania, carrying a fine of $50 for a first offense.
The new law pertains to phones, computers or other devices that can send texts, emails or similar messages. Police are not allowed to seize the devices when they write tickets.
Brent Kovacs, public-information specialist for ODOT District 4, said that during the simulation, the driver lacks control over the vehicle and has less of
a reaction time. In the end, the driver either will crash or be pulled over.
Kovacs said after each simulation, students watch a short video outlining the legal ramifications of being caught driving drunk or crashing because of texting distractions.
He said they experienced what it would be like to perform field-sobriety tests, spend time in jail and appear in front of a judge.
Sam Koniowski, 17, admitted to texting while behind the wheel.
Koniowski’s simulation situation began with her driving a friend home. She began texting while getting onto the highway and ended up causing an accident.
The simulator “was close to what it’s actually like to text and drive,” she said. “It’s a real distraction, definitely.”
As Koniowski and Brianna Banko, 17, took turns in the driver’s seat, their classmates looked on, chuckling as they swerved and drifted in traffic.
McGlynn said she didn’t think they were laughing because they thought it was funny, but because seeing what could happen made them nervous.
“Their response to reality, at this age, is to sometimes make light of it,” McGlynn said. “A lot of the kids who have volunteered are confident kids. ... When their peers see them screwing it up, it’s like a reality check.”
Koniowski and Banko agreed that distracted driving is a serious issue, and after taking part in the simulator, they said they likely will leave their phones in their purses as they leave campus and head home.
“I get distracted easily,” Koniowski said. “I’ll probably think twice before using my phone in my car now.”
Banko, who slammed into a deer during her simulation, said she also is distracted easily while driving but wants to change her habit.
“I sometimes scare myself,” she said. Texting while driving “can obviously cause a lot of damage.”
McGlynn said it’s unlikely that every student who participated in the simulation will stop being a distracted driver.
“If even one child stops and thinks today before pulling out their phone, then it was worth it,” she said.