This is not a crash test

Last weekend, I logged into Facebook to catch up with my social friends, only to read some horrific news. A former student was killed in a motorcycle accident in the early morning hours of the holiday weekend. My phone lit up with texts, telling me the news. Former teachers and students commiserated online. Many left moving tributes to their friend. I sat speechless.

I’ve lost students before, so this was not a novel situation. Each time it is hard. The idea that such a youthful soul is gone, a time stamp forever marked on their life. Like many teachers, the impact is especially tough because our students are not just students. Often we develop relationships that resonate for years, decades beyond the 180 days they sit in our classroom. We care for our students like our own children. In some cases, we share more hours in a day with them than their own biological parents.

Their failures and triumphs become us; we are them. An extension of the wisdom’s we impart, they are the passions we foster, and even the gaps we leave wide open.

It’s a double whammy when they are talented. Creative. Have potential. Seeing them make their way through the embryonic years of schooling to go fearlessly into the world. Nineteen is young. Triple whammy when they are loved. Liked. And turn on the faucet if they can make you laugh. Have wit. Light up the room with an infectious smile.

Hearing the news, took me back to just a few days earlier when I had attended another session of the Citizens Police Academy. We spent the class focusing on DUI and driving while distracted.

Our class began with a photo slide show of real traffic crashes. Some just fender benders. Some fatalities. Images of cracked windshields, shattered glass, and mangled metal filled the screen and crumpled heaps of steel seared into my head. This was not a crash test. These were real people. Real lives. Real consequences.

Calspan Corporation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Two Hybrid III crash test dummies positioned in a Hyundai Elantra during vehicle preparation.

We began with the end in mind. Where one life ends, a traffic units’ duties just begin.

Investigating traffic crashes, regardless of cause or outcome, begins with math. Police officers must complete three, eighty-hour courses to become a certified Reconstructionist, the only member of a team that may serve as an expert witness in court. Members of the unit must show proficiency in advanced mathematics; kinetic energy formulas, vehicle speeds, scale diagramming, vector sums, and thrust center of mass. Having barely passed college Algebra with a ‘C’, this part lost me right away.

A large majority of automobile accidents are the result of driving while impaired or distracted driving. Increasingly, drivers are getting behind the wheel not only under the influence of alcohol, but prescription narcotics, other medications, illegal drugs, and technology.

In the state of Tennessee, impaired driving means your blood alcohol level is .08 or above. A driver can be under the legal limit and still be impaired by illegal or prescription drugs. Having a legal prescription does not exonerate a driver from DUI. In 2014, 138 drivers in our community were charged with DUI.

Our local police force ride with the Alco-Sensor VXL, an advanced, handheld professional breathalyzer that provides a simple and quick determination of breath alcohol content. It’s high accuracy enables police officers to test impaired drivers right on the side of the road during routine traffic stops. Owned by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the breathalyzers are maintained monthly.

During our Citizen’s Police Academy session, and using Fatal Vision goggles, an educational device that allows people to experience with a sober mind what it’s like to drive under the influence of alcohol, we put our drunk driving skills to test. First, we were to drive a cone course ‘sober’, or without the Fatal Vision Goggles. Next, we had to drive the course ‘impaired’, or wearing Fatal Vision goggles.

The majority of Police Academy participants suffered grave consequences while driving impaired. Reaction times were slower. Lane breaches occurred with frequency. Sudden stops and failures to stop were common. Cones were knocked down or ran over. Surprisingly, I maneuvered the course with a fraction more accuracy while driving impaired. Given that I have not had an alcoholic beverage in over twenty years, this was quite shocking for me.

Just as worrisome, and in many cases just as lethal, are distracted drivers. They cruise our roadways while on the phone, texting, applying makeup, falling asleep, eating, using a GPS, or any number of other things (I’ve personally seen a man shaving while driving). Even talking to other passengers inside the car can divert a driver’s attention from the road long enough to cause an accident. Often, these distractions prove fatal.

According to the National Highway Safety Administration, alarming statistics show:

  • In 2013, 3,154 people were killed and approximately 424,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver. (NHTSA)
  • Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to be involved in a serious crash. (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
  • In 2013, ten percent of fatal crashes, 18 percent of injury crashes, and 16 percent of all motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2013 were reported as distraction-affected crashes. (NHTSA)
  • In 2013, ten percent of all drivers 15-19 years old involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crashes. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.   National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The Governor’s Highway Safety Office campaign, One Text or Call Could Wreck it All, aims to combat and prevent distracted driving among drivers of all ages. What you can’t see, can hurt you.

To show the likelihood of a distracted-driving crash, Belgian student drivers were asked to take part in the Impossible Text and Driving Test. The instructor informed them that they had to successfully text and drive in order to pass the license exam. Most could not believe what they were being asked to do.

Much like the Impossible Texting and Driving Test, our academy class was tasked with getting behind the wheel (computer simulated) in the comfort of our classroom. With our cell phones, we were to text and drive. Once the module started, my phone starting pinging with simulated text messages, leaving me only seconds to type a response. It was chilling to see how little control of the car I had once I began looking at my phones. In split seconds, participants ran over pedestrians, jumped curbs, and crashed into street lights. I struggled to maintain a safe speed (yes, driving too slow is dangerous) and my journey ended in a head on collision.

This session left me feeling weary. Embarrassingly, I’ve done these things. Many of us have. In my youth, I drove and rode as a passenger with an impaired driver. In my not so recent past I’ve grabbed my cell to take a quick peek. I’ve looked down for a split second to check the GPS. I’ve dialed that number or checked a Facebook status while stopped at a red light.

Today, it is not my driving I worry about so much. My hyper-awareness of drivers on cell phones has only increased my uneasiness behind the wheel since the academy. I see them everywhere. The paltry $50 fine for distracted driving and the revoked license for DUI, hardly seems a just price compared to the impacted lives, and like my student, the lives that are lost.

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