s
s
Sections
Sections
Search
Subscribe

Teens get hands-on lesson in dangers of distracted driving


Realizing her mistake, Bernadette Butkiewicz jerked the wheel of the Mitsubishi sedan, causing the car to swerve violently as it plowed over several orange cones meant to signify road hazards.

"Basically, you killed us all," said Tim Moser, a driving instructor with Simraceway Performance Driving Center.

The moment brought home the dangers of distracted driving. Had Butkiewicz, a 19-year-old Sonoma State University sophomore, not been on a controlled track at Sonoma Raceway, the consequences of her actions could very well have been catastrophic.

"They're going to take away my license after that, aren't they?" she said with a nervous glance toward several CHP officers who were watching Tuesday's driving simulation.

Whether it's talking or texting on a cellphone, adjusting the radio or simply having a conversation with a passenger, people who drive while distracted are significantly increasing their odds of getting into a crash.

In 2010, 3,092 people were killed and an estimated additional 416,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

That year, 11 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 who were involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time of the crash, according to the agency.

Last November, a 19-year SSU student who killed a toddler and injured her mother when she hit them in a Rohnert Park crosswalk while texting and driving was sentenced to five days in jail and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.

The reality is that many drivers of all ages use their cellphones illegally while driving, despite the risks.

Butkiewicz, who is majoring in political science, said she texts and talks while driving "all the time." She said she uses the speaker function on her iPhone to have those conversations. But unless the phone is out of her hands, she's breaking California law.

That law took effect in California on July 1, 2008. Reading, writing or sending text messages was banned by another law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2009.

So far this year, CHP officers in the Sonoma County area have issued 1,351 citations to drivers for talking on a cellphone while driving, and another 14 citations for texting while driving, according to the agency's records.

Each ticket is a minimum $162 for a first offense, and a minimum $285 for each subsequent citation, authorities said.

Those fines don't appear to be putting a dent in the problem. "You see it all over Sonoma County," CHP Officer Jon Sloat said.

He used the world "ridiculous" to describe the number of drivers he's witnessed tossing their phones away from their ears when they spot Sloat in his cruiser, all in an effort to avoid getting a ticket.

Tuesday's event at the racetrack was designed to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving, particularly for young drivers, who are still developing their road skills and statistically are the most distracted of any age group.

Eight high school and college students from as far away as Citrus Heights near Sacramento took part in the event, which also included representatives from St. Joseph Health of Sonoma County and Farmers Insurance.

In one simulation, the drivers accelerated to highway speeds toward cones in the middle of the road, before being told at the last second to turn left or right to avoid hitting the obstacles.

Butkiewicz went the wrong way twice and in the process knocked over several cones. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate how hard it is to navigate around obstacles when the driver must react quickly.

In another exercise, the teens were timed as they drove SUVs through a course marked off by cones. On their first pass, the teens were instructed to perform certain tasks as they drove, including sending a text on their cellphones or turning on the air conditioner.

Butkiewicz made it through her first attempt without hitting any cones in a time of one minute and six seconds. On her second lap, when she was not distracted, her time was 47 seconds, a difference of 19 seconds.

"I never made that correlation, that if you don't text, you'll get there faster," she said.

And she likely would do so more safely.

Butkiewicz said she was unaware of applications for her cellphone that can read text messages aloud to her while she is driving and respond to the sender with an automated message that she can contact that person later.

The California DMV offers one such application for iPhones and Android-based phones. To learn more, go to http://apps.dmv.ca.gov/mobiledevices/iphone/dmvnow/default.htm.