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Students take on traffic in drive-while-texting simulator

FARGO - As Eric King-Kester was cruising down the boulevard Friday in his silver Toyota Yaris, he looked down at his phone and starting mashing keys to send a text message.

Fargo South freshman Maddie Lehse
Fargo South freshman Maddie Lehse reacts as she runs over a dog while operating the virtual driving simulator on Friday. David Samson/ The Forum

FARGO - As Eric King-Kester was cruising down the boulevard Friday in his silver Toyota Yaris, he looked down at his phone and starting mashing keys to send a text message.

The 16-year-old South High School student was only going 45 mph, but in seconds, he was swerving across the double-barred center dividing lines, then back across the shoulder.

After just avoiding an oncoming truck, the front end of his ride plowed into the back end of a truck that had slowed in front of him.

His windshield shattered into thousands of pieces.

At least, that's what the driving simulator's screen showed.


Game over.

Thirty seconds into a one-minute computerized simulation, he was toast.

"First, I thought I could deal with this," King-Kester said after climbing out of the car. "As the traffic got going, I realized I couldn't do it."

King-Kester was one of dozens of South High students who tried their hand at the "It Can Wait" program's driving simulator, set up in the school's auto mechanics workshop.

"It Can Wait," sponsored by AT&T, Safe Kids Fargo/Moorhead and the North Dakota Safety Council, aims to teach young drivers that no text message is so urgent that it's worth risking lives.

The National Safety Council, using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, estimates 1.2 million crashes each year involve drivers using cellphones to talk, and at least 100,000 other crashes are related to drivers who are texting.

Given that sobering statistic, "our goal is to save lives," AT&T spokeswoman Cheryl Riley said in a news release.

Nigel Helley, a senior at South, had no better luck than King-Kester.


"Whoa. Whoa. Whoa!" was the chant from onlookers as he tried his simulated drive down a palm-lined street, one eye on the road, and the other on the cellphone at his side.

"That was hard," said Helley, who added that he knows "a lot of people" who text behind the wheel.

Maddie Lehse's 30-second trip down text-message lane ended up with a howl of protest.

"I killed a dog!" the 15-year-old freshman said. "Poor thing."

Putting aside their cellphones when they get behind the wheel can be tough for young people. Texting is the No. 1 form of communication for students ages 12 to 17.

A Nielsen survey released in 2011 found that teens send an average of 3,417 texts a month, about seven per hour in a 16-hour day.

A car going 65 mph can travel the length of a basketball court in a second, and the average text takes five seconds, so any margin for error on the road is quickly gone, said South's School Resource Officer Wes Libner.

In addition to the driving test, students are also asked to take a survey on an iPad, Libner said.


Kim Strandemo, a 42-year-old Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate student whose job is shadowing South administrators, also popped behind the wheel of the simulator.

Strandemo said she's been driving since she was 16, and has driven in Beijing, Hong Kong and Qatar.

"I think it was pretty accurate. I was all over the place." Strandemo said. "This is a good message for them (students) because they're not experienced drivers."

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

Fargo South freshman Maddie Lehse
Senior Nigel Helley steers through a virtual driving simulator while attempting to send a text message Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, at Fargo South High School. David Samson / The Forum

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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