Balraj Sohal tests his driving ability on a DriveWise simulator at GESS last week. Dave Gibson

Focus on the road, not the phone

With any new skill that a person sets out to acquire it makes sense that one would learn to do it properly. Especially when a mistake could result in a serious injury or worse.

With that in mind School District 23 is taking steps to help ensure that young drivers are aware of the need to develop safe driving habits. Last week grade 11 and 12 students at George Elliot Secondary became the first in the school district to test-drive simulators that show, amongst other things, the dangers of driving and operating handheld electronics such as cell phones and MP3 players.

“Texting is really a cultural phenomenon, it’s becoming the norm. People pick up the phone to send a message where before they would have made a phone call,” says Dave Gibson, SD23 Traffic Safety Officer.

The driving simulators are provided by DriveWise, a driving school with branches throughout Canada.

The simulators put students in the driver’s seat surrounded by three large monitors. The monitors are connected to a computer that instructors use to select driving scenarios.

The computer program allows variables such as the type of vehicle being driven, snow, rain, wind, time of day and more to be chosen at the touch of a button. To simulate texting students are provided with a calculator and asked to enter simple math operations while driving.

The monitors that replace real-life windows were a distraction to some students but the consensus was that the simulator was effective in pointing out the hazards involved in driving.

“It wasn’t quite like real driving. The people popping out from behind parked vehicles seemed a bit exaggerated but I could see things like that happening,” agreed Balraj Sohal and a group of friends.

When using a handheld device, the students’ driving became even more unpredictable. Signs, people and buildings fell victim to the virtual car as students struggled to maintain a consistent speed and trajectory.

Of course operating handheld electronics while driving is not allowed according to provincial legislation, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t still doing it. According to Gibson, random anonymous polling suggests that approximately 85 per cent of British Columbians openly admit to using phones, iPods and similar devices while driving.

Drivers caught using handheld electronics can be fined up to $167. The consequences are even farther reaching for drivers working their way through the graduated licensing program. Drivers with their ‘N’ can have their license suspended and face having their waiting period reset before they are able to test for a regular class 5 license.

Reinforcing the need to develop good driving habits is particularly important for young drivers. Gibson says that motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death amongst people aged 16 to 24.

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