A sobering experience

Youngsville students learn about the dangers of drunk driving

Sheriff’s Deputies Dee Klakamp and Jake Johnson walk Paul Schwanke through the field sobriety simulation.

The driver’s not drunk in this simulation. The car is.

The Pennsylvania DUI Association’s Safety Bug has made its rounds through the school district this past week, giving students an opportunity to experience what the loss of control and reaction time deficits of impaired driving actually feel like.

Mike Martin, the “mentor” who controls the car’s steering and braking mechanisms to produce the unsettling effect of being out of control behind the wheel, said that the effect is meant to mirror what impairment actually feels like. It would take a driver going 15 to 20 miles an hour around 40 feet to comprehend an out-of-control experience, process what needed to be done, and attempt to correct the still moving vehicle, Martin explained. That’s a lot of space in a short amount of time with the potential for serious consequences.

That’s the message that Students Against Destructive Decisions coordinators Martha Brackemyre and Jessica Arnold were hoping to send Youngsville High School students home with after their Safety Bug experiences on Thursday.

The mechanics of the car have been manipulated, explained Martin, to take reaction time of drivers down to the same reaction time as someone who’d had a couple of drinks. “It gives you a really good idea of what a couple of drinks takes from you in time and reaction,” said Martin. The Safety Bug makes its way to around 130 schools in the commonwealth each year. This week, it’s been to Eisenhower, Youngsville, and Sheffield high schools.

Because of the amount of uninterrupted space required in the parking lot where the simulation is being set up, said Martin and Arnold, they weren’t able to bring the Safety Bug to Warren Area High School.

The point that Martin, Arnold, and Brackemyre hope kids leave with is the realization that a couple of drinks “take more from you than most people think.”

“It’s all about saving lives,” said Martin. “That’s the ultimate goal here. To make you think before you get in a car after you’ve been drinking,” or even to think twice about getting in a car with someone who has been drinking. Students are given the opportunity to drive and to be riders in the backseat, said Martin. The only rule is that they can be the driver only once. The impact of that moment of loss of control, said Arnold, can lose its force after a couple of tries behind the wheel.

The effect appeared to be sinking in as students exited the vehicle having knocked over cones every time. “It’s different, said student Caleb Philips, after driving. Gavin Horner agreed that when the car’s steering cut out and he lost control it was “scary.”

“I’m amazed at the blood alcohol contents that people are driving with,” said Arnold, who is also an adult probation officer. “It’s scary.” She said that it’s important to get teenagers on board and educate them while they’re still in school. More than adults, teenagers and young adults don’t have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, which allows a person to make good decisions, use good judgement, and control impulses, tailoring behavior to meet the requirements of rules and safety. “They already have this risk taking behavior and then you add alcohol to it,” said Arnold. “It really is scary.”

Anyone arrested for DUI, said Arnold, is court ordered to attend the Alcohol Highway Safety School and the Victim Impact Panel, as well as be evaluated for drug and alcohol and mental health needs and comply with all of the recommendations of their clinician. People with DUI are also required to do at least 15 hours of community service, to give back to the community that they put at risk by driving drunk, said Arnold.

And while Warren County Adult Probation, where Arnold said she’s been working over 20 years, makes a concerted effort to provide education as well as consequences, she said that experiences like the Safety Bug demonstration for youth “is impactful. It makes a difference.”