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The drive to stay alive
Simulator shows students the dangers behind the wheel
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Driving with one hand and texting with the other, Tyson Neurath, above, reacts as she hits a pedestrian in the Arrive Alive simulator. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

As Effingham County High School celebrates its prom tonight, the organizing committee wants it to be perfect.

But that extends far beyond just the perfect date or the perfect outfit.

ECHS hosted a number of activities all week to encourage students to abstain from drugs, alcohol and sexual activity on prom night. In fact, the Perfect PROMise campaign was part of the school’s year-long commitment to promote making safe and smart decisions.

"We have good students who try to do the right thing, but I think it helps to emphasize the importance of that not just at prom time, but all year," said junior class president Hannah Boyd.

To drive home that point, ECHS juniors and seniors got behind the wheel of a car that simulates the dangers of driving under the influence and driving while distracted. The "Arrive Alive" simulator from Unite International was on-campus for two days, thanks to a grant from the Peace Officers Association of Georgia and the Planters Telephone Foundation.

"With everything we do throughout the year, I think the safety message is across to our students, but the simulator and the Safe Prom program make them extra cautious," said ECHS teacher and prom committee chair Liz Allen. "The purpose is not to scare them. It’s to raise awareness."

The simulator car’s steering wheel and gas and brake pedals are connected to a computer, and a screen in front of the car displays the driver’s action. Each student receives a mock ticket for the violationscommitted.

In her simulation, ECHS junior Tyson Neurath texted while driving — with tragic results. She sped, swerved, drove on the wrong side of the road and ultimately hit a child who was crossing the street.

"You’re looking at the phone, so you don’t even see the person until it’s too late," said Neurath, a member of the prom committee. "It’s very scary that you have barely any control."

The issue of distracted driving is important to Neurath, who gave a speech on that subject last year to the Rotary Club of Effingham County. She said she was inspired by television public-service announcements depicting the dangers of texting while driving.

"It’s not worth taking someone else’s life just because you want to respond to a text message," Neurath said.

While Neurath said she never texts while driving, classmate Sara Mondello admitted she has.

"Not anymore," Mondello said after she T-boned another car in the simulator. "I feel a lot different now about texting and driving."

Storn Olson, a driving awareness instructor for Unite International, said he takes the simulator to high schools, colleges and military installations all over the country, and it is always an eye-opener for the participants.

"They will hop out of the car and proclaim, ‘I’m never going to do that again.’ That’s the key," Olson said.

He added, "It definitely starts a peer conversation, because the students talk about the citations they received and how much trouble they would be in."

Along with the simulations of texting and driving, several other students experienced the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Stewart Hamilton’s citation included swerving, failing to stop and driving on the wrong side of the road, but that was just the beginning. He was cited for vehicular manslaughter after hitting a simulated pedestrian.

"When you’re driving (the simulator), you think you have control – but you really don’t," Hamilton said.

Driver safety hits particularly close to home for ECHS students, who have mourned the loss of several schoolmates in car crashes over the past two years.

"These kids have had a rough couple years. They have been through a lot with the tragedies we’ve had," Allen said.

"After all that’s happened at Effingham, I’d like to think students will think their decisions through," Neurath said.