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Distracted driving program eye-opening for Towson High students

Mahaj Henry figured it would be difficult. And he was right.

In a simulation of driving while texting during a distracted driving program at Towson High School, Henry, an 18-year-old senior, took his eyes off the road to read a text, and hit a car.

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"It was interesting," Henry said. "It was easy until I got to the texting part."

Texting and talking on cellphones while driving is illegal in the state of Maryland. Nonetheless, educators at Towson High School wanted to reinforce the dangers of both at the distracted driving program held Wednesday at the school.

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"Our children lack the judgment that comes with experience and a program like this does a good job of making the experience real for them," said assistant principal John Stevens. "Thirty years ago, you had problems with driving and alcohol. Today's technology brings new problems."

The school's SADD chapter sponsored the program thanks to a $5,000 grant from State Farm Insurance. Eileen Hardesty, school nurse and SADD adviser, arranged the program, the first such presentation at the school, through the Save A Life tour of Kramer Entertainment Agency, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-provider of college and school events and programs.

"It's a timely topic. The kids are learning to drive," Hardesty said.

The program began with a morning assembly with a speaker and video, and then ran throughout the day with the simulation exercise and discussion sessions.

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Towson High's approximately 700 juniors and seniors attended the morning assembly. About 400 of them rotated through the simulation exercise and discussions depending on class schedules.

To accommodate the program, the gymnasium was turned over to two simulation booths equipped with a driver's seat and steering wheel facing a large screen. Computer software simulated different road and weather scenarios. Buildings and trees, traffic lights and other vehicles whizzed by. It could be bright and sunny or start to snow.

Students took turns in the simulation booth, navigating the road while reading a text message. Screens set up outside the booths showed those students waiting their turns just how the driver was doing.

Most drivers lasted less than three minutes, the maximum simulation time, before inevitably crossing the highway line, going through a red light, swerving off the road, hitting a pedestrian, crashing into a tree and/or hitting another vehicle.

The simulation is deliberately designed that way, said Robert Confer, of Save A Life. "We put up obstacles during the simulation. The longer the simulation lasts, the more obstacles. We want to show all the things that can happen when you're looking at your phone while driving 55 miles per hour."

"It's tough driving and looking down at the [texting] screen," Cameron White, a 17-year old senior, said as he emerged from a simulation booth.

The morning assembly was equally eye-opening. The video was a montage of accident scenes filmed by police, shots of accident victims in the hospital and in rehab, and testimonials from family members and accident survivors, including a young woman whose face was deeply scarred by flying glass.

The speaker talked about his own DUI (driving under the influence) ticket while in high school, and about his two college roommates who were killed in a drunken driving accident.

"It was moving, and interesting to hear the speaker," said senior Miranda Janello, 17.

Said Basma El-Fahssi, also a 17-year old senior, "Every school should have a presentation like this."

Nineteen-year-old senior Twyla Hook echoed the sentiment. "It's useful knowledge that needs to be reinforced. We need to have it more ingrained not to text."

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