None of the students who climbed into the virtual reality car parked at Bigfork High School on Oct. 3 were old enough to drink alcohol, but they all emerged with a sobering understanding of the devastating consequences of drinking and driving.
“Anything we can do to decrease the chances that they will choose to drink and drive in the future, we’ll do it,” said Wendy Olson, who is the DUI task force coordinator for the Flathead County Health Department. “I think it’s an important message to send, especially in Montana where we have a definite problem with people driving impaired and a high fatality rate associated with that.”
To reach out to the young people of Flathead County, Olson arranged to bring in a drunk driving simulator to give local students a hands-on look at what can happen if they choose to operate a vehicle under the influence.
The simulator — which consists of a real car that is electronically synced with a computerized pair of virtual reality goggles — tours the country with representatives of PEER Awareness, a national organization that uses technology to engage students in a way that helps them make better and healthier choices.
“I think it really gets the point across because they’re in an actual car, so it’s just like they’re driving,” said PEER Awareness representative Eli Scheele. “The virtual reality goggles apply delays in reaction time and visual acuity the same way that alcohol does.”
The gas and break pedals, along with the steering wheel, are wired to sensors that translate movement to the simulated world.
During the short simulation drive, students navigate a course that is based on real life situations and obstacles such as corners, pedestrians and traffic lights. At the end of the drive, they find out how often they were speeding, how many traffic laws they broke and how many times they crossed the centerline.
Video monitors set up in front of the simulation vehicle allow students to see how their friends are driving.
“That gets them thinking about the consequences of riding with a drunk driver, and I think that, in some cases, has an even bigger impact than actually operating the simulator,” Scheele said. “We like to ask them, ‘OK, who’s going to step up and take the keys away?’ It’s not just about yourself, it’s about the people around you.”
For Bigfork senior Dillon Charlebois, the simulation was a real wake-up call.
“It was crazy,” Charlebois said. “It was really hard. I passed, but barely. I’m definitely not going to drink and drive. I don’t want to get into an accident, and I don’t want to kill anybody.”
Sophomore Nick Miller echoed Charlebois’ feelings about driving impaired.
“It was hard, and I didn’t react well,” Miller said. “I’m not going to drink and drive.”
According to Scheele, more than 100 Bigfork students participated in the exercise. About 80 percent of those students agreed to sign pledges saying they promised to not drink and drive.
Olson hopes those pledges bode well for the future of DUI prevention in Flathead County.
“Hopefully it has a positive effect,” Olson said. “Yeah, they’re having fun, but hopefully they’re coming away with a positive message that will help them make better choices too.”