DFW students get lesson on dangers of distracted driving

FORT WORTH -- Alex Ferguson chatted on her cellphone Tuesday while cruising at 40 mph on a four-lane road. She hit the brakes hard for a red light, then seconds later swerved and wrecked on the road's shoulder.

"Well, I wiped out," she said.

Good thing Ferguson, a Texas Christian University student, was behind the wheel of a van that wasn't really moving. And that the crash occurred in a virtual world she saw through 3-D goggles meant to demonstrate the dangers of DWD -- driving while distracted.

On Tuesday, the JPS Health Network unveiled a campaign to persuade drivers not to talk on their cellphones, text or e-mail. For the next year, JPS Level 1 Trauma Center officials will take the driving simulator into Tarrant County high schools, colleges and businesses.

The program is funded by a grant from State Farm Insurance.

Almost 6,000 people were killed in 2008 in crashes attributed to cellphone use, according to the National Safety Council.

Studies suggest that people talking on a cellphone while driving are four times more likely to be in a serious accident. If they are sending a text, they are eight times more likely to crash.

"People don't realize that the human brain cannot multitask," said Dr. Raj Gandhi, medical director of JPS trauma services. "What is really happening is the brain is switching back and forth very quickly between multiple tasks. This results in tenths of a second of delay per action that can add up to a significant lag in reaction time."

While in the simulator Tuesday, drivers sat in a van connected to a program allowing drivers to accelerate, brake and turn without really moving. Through 3-D goggles, they navigate virtual streets. On the road, drivers field calls on their cellphone (dialed by JPS injury prevention coordinator Sandra Enriquez in the passenger seat) or send text messages to friends -- acts that distract real drivers every day.

Meanwhile, the driver must react to scenarios created by the simulator.

"Another car may swerve in front of you or someone may jaywalk and walk into the street," said Diana Carroll, a JPS spokeswoman. "These are situations that happen all the time and where your reaction time can be crucial."

The simulator was connected to a laptop computer and large flat-screen television so people attending the TCU event, held for National Driver Safety Month, could see what the drivers saw.

The quality of the driving was, at times, amusing. But the twisted wreckage of a white pickup parked on a trailer next to the simulator was a reminder of the tragic real-life consequences. Johnny and Jeanne Brown, whose 17-year-old daughter died in November after she wrecked the pickup while driving and texting in West Texas, passed out bracelets that read "Buckle Up and Stop Texting."

The Browns encouraged people who tried the simulator to sign pledges to pay attention while they drive.

"If you're driving 55 mph, you can travel the length of a football field in six seconds," Johnny Brown said. "If you're looking down at your phone for six seconds, think about how much can happen in front of you that you don't see. It's not just dangerous for you. It's dangerous for other people."

ALEX BRANCH, 817-390-7689