'As soon as I checked my phone, I died’

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Forest Park High School juniors Damon Wilmes, back left, Austin Rothgerber, Dacotah Deel and Jacob Durcholz reacted as junior Taylor Hopf crashed a driving simulator while attempting to type a text message on a cellphone Tuesday at Buechler Arena in Ferdinand. The two simulators on hand were part of a distracted driving program that gives drivers the realistic experience of operating a car while attempting to text.

Herald Staff Writer

FERDINAND — It took only 37 seconds after taking the wheel for Forest Park High School junior Kacy Gogel to rear-end the car ahead of her.

She sighed heavily and leaned back in her seat holding an iPhone in her hand. The screen displayed a text message she had nearly finished typing. It was in response to the question, “What’s up?” She had begun responding, “Driving.”

Luckily for Gogel, she wasn’t in a real vehicle Tuesday afternoon when the buzzing of the cellphone distracted her from the road. She was safely in the high school gym, surrounded by classmates, many of whom had just received hefty traffic fines or experienced fatal collisions as a result of their texting.

The students were participating in a distracted driving simulation hosted by Kramer Entertainment of Grand Rapids, Mich. The traveling crew heads to schools across the country to teach kids the dangers of taking their eyes off the road, even for a moment.

“It was harder than I thought,” Gogel said of the simulation. “I have a friend who died texting and driving. I’ve learned what can happen if you do.”

A licensed driver, Gogel said she has texted while driving occasionally but that she won’t do it anymore.

According to database statistics for Dubois County shared by county sheriff’s deputy Tim Lampert, five collisions have been caused by driver cellphone use so far this year, two of them with injury. Twenty-three total accidents with the primary cause marked as “distracted driver” have occurred in the county this year, he said, noting that three of them caused injuries.

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Forest Park High School junior Dacotah Deel attempted to respond to the text “What town do you live in?” with the cellphone in one hand and the other hand on the steering wheel of a driving simulator Tuesday morning in Buechler Arena. Students found it difficult to drive the simulator while responding to multiple text messages and still obeying traffic laws.

Kramer Entertainment’s Christopher Rich begins each session with a graphic video featuring victims of texting and driving accidents and with his own personal tale of losing his sister in a drunk driving collision. He said the content of the video, along with the heat in the gym, might have been responsible for a few students briefly becoming faint while doing the exercise.

The simulation was brought to schools in Dubois and surrounding counties by the Memorial Hospital Foundation. So far, Forest Park, Heritage Hills and Barr-Reeve, students have taken a drive down the virtual road with a cellphone in their laps. The program will travel to Jasper, Southridge, Pike Central, Loogootee, Shoals and Springs Valley high schools as well.

Foundation Executive Director Mike Jones said board members asked him to investigate texting and driving programs offered in the area and he found the issue was not being addressed. Because the foundation wants to keep a focus on community health and safety, Jones said, it was important to reach out to students about safe driving.

“If it saves one life, it’s worth the investment,” he said. “If you can prevent an accident, it’s better than fixing one.”

Jones said he would like for the foundation to continue sponsoring the program in the future to reach more studentsas they begin taking their driving tests and hitting the road for the first time on their own.

Indiana State Police spokesman Sgt. Todd Ringle said his department conducts distracted driving programs in schools in the Evansville area in conjunction with St. Mary’s Hospital. After speaking to about 30,000 students, he has noticed that texting is a big problem among young people.

“Most of those students are telling us that they’re texting (and driving) almost every day,” Ringle said. “It takes an average person three to five seconds to text a message. At 55 miles per hour ... you’re driving approximately 300 feet without knowing where you’re going.”

Ringle said statistics about texting and driving can be deceiving because it is sometimes hard to determine whether a cellphone was in use at the time of an accident.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than 3,000 people died in crashes linked to driver distraction. Hundreds of thousands more people suffered a distracted driving-related injury. Those distracting activities include using a cellphone to talk, text or browse the Internet, eating, drinking, talking to other passengers, applying makeup, reading maps or GPS systems, watching videos and changing the radio station.

On July 1, 2011, texting and driving became illegal in Indiana, and drivers who do not obey the law may be fined up to $500.

Forest Park junior Matthew Olinger got a taste of those fines when Rich handed him a fake traffic ticket that detailed all of his offenses. Before he even have a chance to begin typing his answer to the text he had just received, Olinger hit the curb and smashed into a van traveling in the opposite lane on the video screen in front of him.

“As soon as I checked my phone, I died,” Olinger said.

A friend, junior Ben Englert, suffered the same fate. He managed to send off three texts ­— answering what type of car he was driving, his favorite color and his grade level in school — before crashing into another car.

“It was eye-opening,” he said.

Contact Claire Moorman at cmoorman@dcherald.com.

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