Students Get Taste Of Impaired, Distracted Driving With Save A Life Program

By: Brad Joyal

Topics: Education , Monomoy Regional High School

Monomoy junior Dominic Tsoukalas wears a virtual reality headset while operating the impaired driving simulator. BRAD JOYAL PHOTO

HARWICH – Monomoy Regional High School students were exposed to the challenges — and dangers — that are associated with distracted and impaired driving on Friday when the school welcomed the Save A Life Tour back to MRHS for the first time since 2017.

The program granted MRHS students the opportunity to simulate driving a car while simultaneously wearing a virtual reality headset that demonstrates the feeling of driving while being impaired on alcohol or marijuana.

“We call it impaired sim because it simulates everything — everything from Tylenol PM that makes you drowsy to alcohol or drugs or marijuana,” explained Chris Rich, the Save A Life instructor that led the program in the MRHS gymnasium throughout Friday’s school day. “We also have a texting sim that we’ll have kids hold a phone and try to text and drive as they go down the street. They’ll try to look up, look down, look up and look down to get a visual idea of what it looks like when someone is trying to drive a car while on the phone.”

Regardless of whether the students already have their license or not, the program proved to be an eye-opening experience for many, including Declan Dyer, a junior from Dennis who tried the impaired driving simulator.

“I will stay away from [drinking] when I’m driving,” Dyer said. “I think it would probably be a good idea based off that.”

“When I saw people doing it, it looked easier but then when I got up there it was a lot harder,” Dyer continued. “In the VR, you can’t really see the pedals, so I kind of had to feel around for the pedals and then I missed a few stop signs.”

The simulators look similar to giant racing games often found inside arcades or game rooms. Still, even though they included video game graphics, the students said it felt like the real thing.

“It was pretty realistic. I will never drink and drive after that experience,” said Dominic Tsoukalas, a junior from Harwich, who tried the impaired driving simulator. “Everything felt kind of really slow, really delayed. I felt like I was taking a turn but I was taking it way too wide or not taking it sharp enough. I don’t know if it was alcohol or marijuana that I was supposed to be under, but it was tough.”

Students also struggled with the distracted simulator. Despite all of their experience texting, the often-easy task proved to be overwhelming once they got behind the wheel.

“It was hard because you have to pay attention to the phone while also being on the road,” said Michael Desir, a junior from Dennis. “It just keeps sending texts and you have to drive and answer all of them — it’s hard.”

The Save A Life Tour was open to Monomoy’s wellness students ranging from eighth to 12th grade. Students were given a pre-test to gauge their driving experience before taking part in the program, which also included a video presentation outlining the simulators as well as a post survey used to determine what the students gained from the program.

MRHS wellness teacher Chelsea Cunningham said the program has been effective regardless of students’ driving experience.

“For the students that can drive, at moments it might feel exaggerated or like a video game,” Cunningham said. “But they are aware of what we’re talking about here and they understand the preface is to bring awareness to what it feels like, especially for students that are freshmen or sophomores or eighth graders.”

Save A Life Tour is based in Grand Rapids, Mich., and is considered the nation’s leading impaired and driving prevention program, according to the company’s website. Rich said the program travels the country mostly visiting high schools.

The program cost more than $3,000 to bring to Monomoy and was paid for through a $2,900 grant from the Barnstable County Substance Abuse Prevention Collaborative and a $400 grant from the Women’s Club of Chatham.

Sheila House, counselor for Harwich Youth Services, said the program was well timed with the organization’s youth risk behavior survey — an anonymous survey for MRHS students that gathers data about issues trending among the community’s youth. The results of the survey are due in the spring, she added.

Email Brad Joyal at brad@capecodchronicle.com. Twitter: @BradJoyal