Students drive ‘drunk' and learn it isn't easy

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:00

Simulator makes drivers feel like they have a blood alcohol level of .20, By John Church NEWTON — “It wasn’t my fault” was commonly repeated by “drunk” drivers behind the Student Activities Building on the campus of Sussex County Community College Wednesday. The drivers were in a simulator and the alcohol only existed as part of a computer program. The simulator was a Hyundai which had sensors placed under the front wheels to measure steering inputs. Several cables through the open passenger side window connected laptop computers to additional sensors on the brake and the accelerator pedals. “The simulator has 35 different driving scenarios to choose from and we are running it today to simulate a .20 blood alcohol concentration. The simulation lasts for two minutes or until the driver crashes,” said Erik Wilkin of Professionals Encouraging Educational Reform Statewide (PEERS). “The simulation adds a delay to the braking action and makes the steering very sensitive. The Virtual reality goggles limit peripheral vision giving the driver tunnel vision,” said Wilkin. The driving simulator was presented by PEERS in coordination with the University branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the SCCC Criminal Justice department. The sound of screeching tires and frequent crashes drew a crowd to watch the action on two computer screens that showed the same view as the driver’s goggles. Not all of the students were there on a whim. “The students in the Law Enforcement classes are required to drive the simulator,” said Professor Wendy Cooney as she checked names against her class roster. “This will give them an idea of what a drunken driver experiences.” When asked about Cooney’s performance behind the wheel a student cheerfully and eagerly supplied the information. “She spent most of the time weaving, speeding and crossing the center line,” said Miguel Castillo. While waiting his turn, student John O’Donnell of Vernon Township made some predictions concerning his time behind the wheel. “At .20 blood alcohol content the ride should be over pretty quick.” After a terror-filled ride that ended like most others — with a crash — he said the experience was “very eye opening. The goggles made everything look different. The brakes didn’t work normally and you are moving faster than you think you are.” Next in line was Michael Luongo with a driving forecast that was, after watching his classmates crash or collect multiple traffic tickets, bordering on fantasy. “I’m really hoping to do it and not hit anything or get any tickets,” said Luongo. His performance left his prediction, and the simulated car, a wreck. “It wasn’t my fault. A pickup truck backed out in front of me. I lost control at 60 mph and hit a car parked in a gas station,” said Luongo. Cooney is also the advisor to University branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving at SCCC. “We are the only two-year college in the state with UMADD,” said Cooney. She does not expect the group to quickly spread to other two-year schools as “UMADD is more common at institutions with on-campus housing where alcohol may be more easily accessible. While two-year college students must travel to and from school, alcohol is less likely to be available on the campus.” A fact sheet from the Center for Prevention & Counseling itemized the financial cost of a drunken driving violation totaling $14,240.The assortment of drunken driving violations incurred in the simulator was not quite that expensive. The only price to pay was a push of the reset button.