NFA students learn the hazards of texting while driving

Michael Estle, left, with Save A Life Tour, watches the screen while Norwich Free Academy senior Xilong 'Dragon' Zhang takes his turn on a simulator and tries to drive and answer a text at the same time Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in the lobby of Slater Auditorium on the school campus.  The simulators are from the Save A Life Tour Safe Driving Awareness Program.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Michael Estle, left, with Save A Life Tour, watches the screen while Norwich Free Academy senior Xilong "Dragon" Zhang takes his turn on a simulator and tries to drive and answer a text at the same time Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in the lobby of Slater Auditorium on the school campus. The simulators are from the Save A Life Tour Safe Driving Awareness Program. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Norwich — Dozens of Norwich Free Academy students drove off simulated roads, ran red lights and stop signs and crashed into everything from sign posts to dump trucks and school buses Tuesday, all to answer texts asking their favorite pizza toppings, where they wanted to go to eat or what to do about a tough test coming up.

The International Save a Life Tour, sponsored by the state Department of Transportation, stopped at NFA Tuesday to demonstrate the dangers of distracted driving while texting. Two simulators featuring a full-size steering wheel and console with a large video screen windshield were set up in the Slater Auditorium lobby. Each had an even larger second screen to allow other students, waiting in line to try the simulator, to watch how their schoolmates were driving.

Many of those waiting became back-seat drivers — unwittingly adding to the distractions the driver experienced — commenting on their speed, approaching stop signs and traffic.

“It’s very dangerous,” said senior Xilon “Dragon” Zhang, 18, of Norwich. “If that really happens in real life, I would be dead.”

Zhang swerved into the breakdown lane to answer a text on his favorite pizza, slowed way down to answer another text and then crashed head-on into an oncoming car to answer his favorite place to eat.

“I thought it was very enlightening,” Alexis Silva, 18, of Bozrah said. “Texting and driving is much more difficult than you think.” The senior said she has her license and never texts while driving. She said she puts her phone on silent mode and puts it in the glove box.

Matilde Portes, 17, a senior from Norwich, said she has a learner’s permit and practices driving with her father, who would never let her use her phone while driving. On the simulator, she answered a text while stopped at a red light. When she was done typing, she drove forward. But the light was still red.

“I was doing so good!” Portes said.

Most students found the simulator fun, if a bit frustrating. The steering wheel and pedals were more sensitive than most cars, and they had to steer carefully. Some students didn’t pick up the phone sitting on the console as they tried to navigate either city streets, rural highways or snowy mountain passes.

“You got three texts,” one student said to a friend who ignored the phone and the loud music also playing in the simulator to concentrate on driving.

Tour crew member Michael Estle coached students through the simulator, inviting them to treat it like real driving, saying they could take turns onto any of the side streets coming up and reminding them that driving too slowly to answer a text is just as dangerous as speeding.

“It’s the fact that you have your hands off the wheel, your eyes off the road and your mind off your driving,” Estle said.

Senior Emily Claspell, 17, of Voluntown has her license and admitted she sometimes texts while driving and puts her phone in a cup holder beside her. She swerved several times in the simulator.

Melanie Girardin, 17, a senior from Preston said she, too, puts the phone in a cup holder but said she doesn’t text and drive. “It was difficult,” she said of the simulator.

“I almost died, like 10 times!” another student said as he got out of the simulator car seat.

The International Save a Life Tour, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., goes to 80 high schools per year in Connecticut, tour manager Keian Hagstrom said. The program starts with a presentation to students on distracted driving and then asks them to try the two-minute simulator.

Jodi M. Savage, coordinator of the NFA Project Outreach student service program, and Linda Farinha, head of the career and technical education department, coordinated Tuesday’s program for NFA, with Farinha’s marketing students spreading the word. Students in 11th grade took the safe driving class prior to using the simulator Tuesday morning, and the simulators were open to any students during lunch. Dozens lined up to give it a try and received a black wrist band stamped with “Safe Driving Saves Lives” and the tour’s website address, www.savealifetour.com.

“Our team is honored to have educated individuals of all ages at hundreds of high schools and universities, as well as numerous military bases, corporate events and offices all over the world,” a statement on the website said. “The Save A Life Tour travels locally, nationally and internationally.”

Michael Whaley, DOT public outreach program coordinator, said DOT has been sponsoring distracted driving programs in high schools since 2012. The program is funded using federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grants, which also fund local and state police enforcement sweeps periodically.

Whaley said the Save a Life Tour has visited more than 300 high schools, revisiting some schools every two or three years.

"The good thing about high schools is you get different kids every year," he said.

c.bessette@theday.com

Norwich Free Academy junior Fendy Divers takes his turn on a simulator and tries to drive and answer a text at the same time Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in the lobby of Slater Auditorium on the school campus. The screen on the left shows the students in line what is on the simulator screen so they can see how the driver is doing. The simulators are from the Save A Life Tour Safe Driving Awareness Program.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Norwich Free Academy junior Fendy Divers takes his turn on a simulator and tries to drive and answer a text at the same time Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in the lobby of Slater Auditorium on the school campus. The screen on the left shows the students in line what is on the simulator screen so they can see how the driver is doing. The simulators are from the Save A Life Tour Safe Driving Awareness Program. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Norwich Free Academy senior Emily Claspell takes her turn on a simulator and tries to drive and answer a text at the same time Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in the lobby of Slater Auditorium on the school campus. The screen on the left shows the students in line what is on Claspell's simulator screen so they can see how she is doing. The simulators are from the Save A Life Tour Safe Driving Awareness Program.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Norwich Free Academy senior Emily Claspell takes her turn on a simulator and tries to drive and answer a text at the same time Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in the lobby of Slater Auditorium on the school campus. The screen on the left shows the students in line what is on Claspell's simulator screen so they can see how she is doing. The simulators are from the Save A Life Tour Safe Driving Awareness Program. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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