BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — Sitting in a driver’s seat and staring at a video screen, Jamie White held the steering wheel in one hand and a cell phone in the other.
As she attempted to navigate the virtual roads, she was also tasked with answering a series of questions via text message.
Like many of the other students at Buena Regional High School, she crashed. The simulation was part of the National Save A Life Tour stop at the high school Wednesday, sponsored by the local municipal alliance.
“It was scary because you had to keep looking up and down,” said White, 16, of Buena Vista Township.
Texting is only one of the many ways to drive distracted. Wednesday’s presentation was part of a larger effort by the school district to bring awareness to this deadly habit.
“That’s what we’re trying to get them to understand. It’s not just about texting,” said Stephanie Winkler, driver’s education teacher at the high school.
In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. Teens were the largest age group reported as distracted at the time of fatal crashes.
Winkler said distractions can include checking notifications from social media apps and sending Snapchats. New Jersey State Police have also warned of other dangerous behaviors, including applying makeup, adjusting the radio, or being too involved in a conversation with passengers.
Wednesday’s presentation from the Save A Life Tour included a talk from tour manager C.J. Rich, a video presentation about the possible outcomes of distracted and drunken driving, and a drunken driving simulator that has been taken to the Pentagon. The safe-driving awareness program was used by the Department of Defense and the Connecticut Department of Transportation to educate about the consequences of unsafe driving habits.
Rich said the Save A Life Tour hopes to reach young drivers before they start a habit that’s hard to break later in life.
“They’re young, they’re learning. Kids are more likely to make a bad choice,” Rich said.
Winker said it was “impactful” for the students to see actual footage from car crashes.
“You could hear a pin drop,” she said. “It really put things into reality.”
Research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows new teen drivers between age 16 and 17 are three times as likely as adults to be involved in a fatal crash.
In 2016, of the 603 deaths on New Jersey’s roads, 34 were drivers and passengers age 20 and under, according to State Police data. So far this year, that statistic is 24 of the 465.
“The kids, I believe they’re starting to get the message about texting and driving,” Winkler said.
She and Judy Venafro, the student assistance coordinator at Buena, are also advisers for the “U Got Brains Champion School Program” in which students develop fun and interactive education campaigns on safe driving. The top campaigns are awarded a driving simulator for their school donated by New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company.
Venafro said the school has applied to the competition for the last three years but has not won. She said the National Save A Life Tour visit was the next best thing.
“It’s very difficult,” Howard Nash, 17, of Minotola, said after he tried out the drunken driving simulator Wednesday morning. “Everybody thinks it’s a joke until you put yourself in those shoes.”
Katie Dalponte, 16, of Richland, said many teens feel like their phones are their “lifeline.” She said she learned the importance of being focused while driving.
“Our whole life, our families’ lives, depend on it. And our phone can wait,” she said.