500 Basalt students get hands-on look at drunk, distracted driving | AspenTimes.com

500 Basalt students get hands-on look at drunk, distracted driving

About 500 students at Basalt High School got a firsthand look Tuesday at how driving while drinking or distracted is a recipe for disaster.

Rather than having the lesson drilled into them via a dry speech, the students participated in multiple exercises that simulated driving under the influence of alcohol or while trying to text.

Basalt police officers borrowed a couple of golf carts from the Roaring Fork Club and set up two driving courses outside the school. On one course, students wearing goggles that alter depth perception and vision tried to negotiate a slalom course of cones. In the second course, they tried to weave between the cones while sending and receiving texts.

"We're doing a safe driving week at the high school before prom to make sure the students are aware of the dangers of drinking and driving and texting and driving, so we don't have any bad things happen the night of prom and any time in the future," senior William Orben said.

“To send one text could be your last.”

— Karla Garcia, sophomore

He had just peeled off what he labeled a pair of "drunk goggles" after whipping through the slalom cone course at astounding speed. He successfully negotiated the course but spilled his passenger while rounding a curve.

The goggles, according to Basalt officer Ernie Mack, mimicked the visual effects of driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.12 to 0.15, about twice the threshold for driving under the influence of alcohol.

"It really messes with your perception and it's hard to see where the cones are and which direction you're driving," Orben said. "I thought I did pretty well. I was going a little fast. It was definitely a little more difficult than I thought it would be."

Senior Abraham Hernandez emerged from the driving-while-distracted course with a look that appeared to be half amusement, half astonishment.

"This was a different experience. I usually drive my mom's mini-van," he said.

The exercise reinforced something he said he already knows — that he cannot drive and tackle other tasks at the same time. Hernandez said he felt the exercises provide good lessons for young drivers.

"Definitely, because it's good to get kids hands-on experience and being self-aware and conscious of themselves in front of others," he said. "It's not only a privilege to drive, it's also a risk."

Inside the high school gym, Basalt officers had two additional stations set up. Sgt. Aaron Munch required students wearing the drunk goggles to walk a straight line, heel to toe for 10 steps, then pivot and walk back, always with hands by their side. It's one of the maneuvers officers use in field sobriety tests.

It was sobering to see how alcohol sinks basic motor functions. Many students had trouble keeping their balance or lining up a heel to a toe.

"You really hope it sticks," Munch said of the lesson.

Another station overseen by school resource officer Thomas Wright tested the students' hand-eye coordination while playing catch with a ball and wearing the drunk goggles.

"Our department partnered with student council," said Wright, who led the coordination of the effort. "It's prom this week. Our whole desire is not to have any loss of life this week — or any week."

The Colorado State Patrol supplied a high-tech driving simulator for the final station. Students drove city and rural streets in a video game-type setting while receiving commands, listening to the voice of a slightly annoying passenger and paying attention to texts. Almost invariably the cruising resulted in an accident.

"You can't multitask. It's super hard," sophomore Karla Garcia said. "To send one text could be your last. You could cause a big accident or even just a minor one, which will cost a lot, too."

She said she perceives texting as a problem because so many people in her generation use social media as a way to communicate with family and friends.

Sophomore Cheyenne French said she believes texting and driving is more of an issue for adults rather than teens.

"I would never text and drive," she said. "I see a lot of people do it, mostly grown-ups. I don't see as many teenagers do it. I know my friends don't do it. They'll tell their friends in the passenger's seat, 'Hey will you pick up that call for me?' or 'Can you text this person because I'm driving right now?'"

Freshman Mayzee Bostick said driving the golf cart through the cones while texting drove home an important point to her.

"It was way harder than I thought, and I already knew I couldn't text and drive," she said. "So many people do it. When they stop they pull out their phones, which I don't think is a big deal, but when they are texting and driving, that's a really big deal."

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While the interactive exercises got the students interested, Basalt Police and Fire departments have something planned for today that will really grab their attention. They will position two mauled vehicles to simulate the aftermath of a head-on collision. Wright said the scenario will be explained as a drunk teenage driver swerving over the yellow line and colliding with a vehicle driven by another teen distracted by their smartphone.

Five students from the school will be coated in fake blood; one won't survive and another will be airlifted out via a helicopter, which is part of the elaborate arrangement. Officials representing the Coroner's Office and the District Attorney's Office will be on hand to discuss the consequences.

Wright said he hopes the event will make enough of an impression to prevent a real tragedy.

scondon@aspentimes.com