Hopewell teens experience dangers of distracted driving through virtual exercises

HOPEWELL, Va. (WWBT) – DRIVE SMART Virginia, Hopewell Police Department and VCU traveled to Hopewell High School to educate sophomores students about the dangers of distracted driving using its drive smart simulator Wednesday.

This educational program included a virtual reality simulation installed into a full-size vehicle. Students wore a headset that simulated the dangers teens might experience once behind the wheel, all while being given commands by instructors.

“We’ll be giving them things that might distract them, like, for example, turning up the radio, reaching up and grabbing their cell phone to speak with a family member, or reaching the back seat to grab something,” said DRIVE SMART spokesperson Ben Bruce.

DRIVE SMART created the program years ago in response to the fact that car crashes are the leading cause of teen deaths in America.

“Just that split second is oftentimes enough for them to have a crash or to swerve off the road,” Bruce said.

All week the organization stopped by multiple school divisions across central Virginia.

“We had to think outside the box when creating this program,” said Janet Brooking, Executive Director of DRIVE SMART Virginia. “We wanted this to be an effective way to educate teens in a safe and engaging environment. Our participant surveys have shown the program is working, with 95% of teens surveyed saying they would recommend the program to their peers.”

About 300 students at Hopewell High School were also required to maneuver around pedestrians, avoid parked vehicles and obey traffic laws, all while wearing goggles that simulated impairment.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but it was actually a lot harder than I thought,” said Hopewell sophomore Gabriel Gore.

DRIVE SMART also partnered with Powhattan Sheriff Deputy Brad Hughes. Eight years ago, while responding to a traffic accident on Midlothian Turnpike, Hughes was pinned to his squad car by a distracted driver. He spent his time at the high school sharing his story with students.

“I’m coming in on a power chair. I’m coming in with no legs, and it makes them wonder what happened to myself,” Hughes said. “Unfortunately, I lost my right leg on the stage. Once I got to the hospital, they took my left leg from me.”

Hughes says his main goal in partnering with DRIVE SMART Virginia is to reach the minds of teens before they ever get their driver’s license so that they can keep themselves from being in his position or be the ones to cause it for someone else.

“The importance here is that everyone sees the reality,” Hughes said. “Just because you have that license doesn’t make you the expert.”

According to DRIVE SMART, tens of thousands of teens have participated in this program in the past eight years thanks to crucial grant funding from State Farm.

DRIVE SMART Virginia partners with local community groups such as trauma centers, law enforcement agencies, and victim advocates to expand the educational programming by bringing real-world stories to students.

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