It didn't take long for sophomore Portia Johnson to realize that multi-tasking while driving is not only difficult but quite dangerous.
She found herself in an awkward position of using her elbows to control the steering wheel and her hands to hold her cell phone. While steering, she tried sending a text message while paying attention to the street in front of her.
Within minutes, Portia had run off the road and crashed into a grassy field.
Thankfully, Portia wasn't behind a real car wheel but using a driving simulator. The accident took place on a computer screen, not an actual street.
“It was hard,” the 16-year-old said. “You are paying attention to the text, not the computer. In real life, this teaches you that you should not text and drive.”
Portia wasn’t alone. Her classmates in the driver’s education course at Plainfield North quickly learned they, too, could not text and drive. While trying to operate two technical devices, they ran off the road, into fields and head-on into other cars.
The idea is to have teens recognize their mistakes in class and not while operating a real vehicle where lives are at stake.
The paid for the driving simulator with a $6,000 grant from the Canadian National Railway. Since the remainder of the $9,300 price tag was paid for by the Illinois Department of Transportation, no local taxpayer dollars were used.
Police Sgt. Eric Munson said the simulator will travel to the Plainfield Central, East and North campuses as well as special events and festivals throughout town. (Plainfield South High School is not under the Plainfield Police Department’s jurisdiction.)
The simulator is almost like a video game where users can steer, step on the gas and brake as they navigate through a course where kids, dogs and deer may run into the street.
Just like real-life situations, users must heed traffic and be wary of cars that dart out in front of them. They must stop at railroad crossings rather than attempt to outrun the trains, which Munson said is especially important for Plainfield students, noting that nearly 20 grade crossings are in and near village limits and daily train traffic continues to increase.
The user can also simulate nighttime driving or different weather conditions such as driving in light or heavy snow, in a thunderstorm or on a bright, sunny day.
While using the simulator, the computer verbally tells them of their mistakes as they happen. They are driving too fast. They are veering into the shoulder. They didn’t allow enough room to safely stop.
“I think the best part is the assessment,” said John Darlington, a driver’s education instructor at Plainfield North. “They can make the mistakes here so they won’t make the mistakes out there. It will help them in the long run.”
Sophomore Zachary Caputo, 16, said he feels the simulator has been “very helpful.”
“This allows people to experience a realistic setting and get more practice,” he said. “I think it’s very good training.”
Jon Otstott, 15, tried driving in the night with heavy snow while attempting to send a text. It was too much to handle, and he ran off the road.
But, he would rather make the mistakes in class than in a car, he said.
Both Darlington and Munson said teenagers behind the wheel suffer from inexperience.
Many simple driving techniques, such as checking the mirrors and staying in one’s lane, that adults take for granted are still hard to master for 15- and 16-year-old new drivers.
Teenagers often mistakenly feel they are invincible as well, so the driving simulator helps give them a reality check. Don’t drive too fast. Don’t send a text. Don’t outrun a train. Pay attention.
“It’s pretty realistic,” sophomore Griffin Eldred, 15, said. “But in real life, you will suffer the consequences.”