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Waldron students get crash course in distracted driving

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Timmus Pong, second from left, gives instructions to a student driver during Tuesday's distracted driving virtual reality simulation.
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Sophomore Ryan Bartlett laughs while being distracted by his teasing classmates all while trying to stay on the road.

By ROSS FLINT - rflint@shelbynews.com

Students and teachers alike were zig-zagging across the street, distracted by their phone while driving in front of Waldron Jr/Sr. High School – but it was perfectly safe for members of the Waldron marching band to practice on the street on Tuesday.

Sitting in a parked Chevrolet wearing big goggles and holding their cell phone in their right hand, students took turns participating in a distracted driving virtual reality program. The program, called Augmented Reality Distracted Driving Education Simulator (ARDDES), is provided by the PEERS Foundation and sponsored by State Farm, and it teaches students across the country the dangers of distracted driving, particularly because of their phone.

Timmus Pong of PEERS guided the students through the process, at times reminding them to look down at their phone or encouraging them to take a fake selfie.

Oftentimes students then promptly ran off the road, or ran into a pedestrian crossing the street or into another vehicle, much to the amusement of their classmates who were watching on a flat-screen television that was positioned next to the car.

Pong said the foundation, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., has traveled across the country to more than 100 schools.

Waldron Principal Gary Brown said he previously received an e-mail from PEERS explaining the free program and he expressed interest in it coming to Waldron.

“I think it’s an awesome opportunity and I think just about every school in the area should do something like this,” Brown said.

In fact, the ARDDES program will be spending the day at Shelbyville High School today before going to Bloomington on Thursday and Morristown on Friday.

The students came away with a better understanding of how easy it is to lose control of a vehicle from being distracted.

“It’s pretty eye-opening,” Mitch Coon, a sophomore, said. “You got to see how it could be when you’re driving by yourself and looking at your phone. It’s completely different. It’s so much easier to wreck if you’re not paying attention.”

Drivers are 4-5 times more likely to get in an accident from being distracted, according to PEERS, and 11 teenagers die every day from it.

Those students who participated signed a pledge sheet promising not to drive distracted.

Brown said he hopes students learned “how dangerous texting and driving really is.”

“If they don’t do it, they know somebody who is,” he said, adding he hopes those students pass along the message to friends and classmates. “You hear all the time of kids sharing the message ‘don’t drink and drive.’ ‘I’m not going to ride with anybody that’s been drinking,’ but you know what? Really, you shouldn’t even ride with anybody that texts.”

Pong had a simple, but important message for students while watching them take turns on the simulator.

“Stay off your phones,” he said. “Don’t text and drive.”