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Drunken driving simulator teaches a sobering lesson 'It was very scary to be so out of control'


It didn't take long to convince Kim Melchior never to drive drunk.

A short ride in a Dodge Daytona, programmed to operate as if the driver had been drinking, was a very sobering experience for the 17-year-old Bel Air High School senior.

"I can't stop my hands from shaking," Melchior said after taking a drive around a course set up in the parking lot at the Bel Air Motor Vehicle Administration to demonstrate to high school students how they would drive if they got behind the wheel tipsy.

"It was very scary to be so out of control," said Melchior.

About 140 Bel Air High School students got a chance to experience drunken driving without drinking a drop of alcohol, driving or riding as passengers in the specially equipped car. The drunken driving simulator car, touring schools nationwide, was also made available to students at Aberdeen High School last week.

The car, called the Dodge Drunk Driving Simulator, was developed by Chrysler Corp. The car sports a computer that can be programmed with the student's weight, between 90 and 260 pounds, and a number of drinks, between 1 and 12.

PTC The computer then delays the steering and braking response time to equal the slowed physical and mental response abilities of a driver under the influence of alcohol.

Melchior said she was surprised the car was so difficult to drive while she was "drunk."

"I didn't think it would make that much difference, I thought it would be cake," she said.

Bel Air High student Brian Hazlett, 19, said many students drove through the figure-eight course twice, once sober and once as if they were under-the-influence of alcohol.

"Your reactions are so delayed, its unbelievable," he said of the difference.

And Bel Air student Wanda Frink, 18, predicted the experience would convince a lot of students that it is never wise to drink and drive. Frink said she found it impossible to control the car. She was among students who hit one of the metal figures of children along the course. The figures, representing children running through traffic, would pop up from the pavement in front of the car to test braking response time.

Typically, one student gets to drive the car while another rides along in the back seat. An instructor is in the car at all times and has a separate braking system for use in emergencies.

Driving in the Dodge Drunk Driving Simulator is just one activity scheduled to hammer home the message that drinking and driving don't mix, said Bel Air High School Principal William M. Ekey.

That message is particularly important during prom and graduation season, he said.

Ekey said efforts to deter students from drinking and driving have been successful. "There is much less drinking and driving today; kids are more careful," he said. He wants more educational effort to stop all under-age drinking.

Other anti-drinking and driving events at Bel Air High School this week include a mock trial, where a drunken driving case will be in re-enacted by the Harford County Bar Association.

"We can't reach all the teen-agers, but if we can save just one or two lives we will be happy," said Bel Air police chief Leo Matrangola.

Matrangola, speaking to students before their test drive, warned the students that the police department actively patrols for drunk drivers.

Matrangola, who has been police chef for about 13 months, said 40 drunken driving arrests were made in Bel Air in all of 1991. "This year we have made 30 arrests and it's only May," he said.

"We are going after drunk driving and other alcohol violations with a lot of energy and a lot of vigor," he said. The police department does not give warnings, he said.

Mark Decker, mayor of Bel Air and owner of two liquor stores, warned students that alcohol store owners are also on the offensive. "If you are underage and you try to buy alcohol we will catch you and we will prosecute you," he said. The legal drinking age in the state is 21.

Alcohol abuse is the most common drug abuse problem nationally among adults and teens, said Laurie J. Dawson, administrative assistant for drug prevention and education for Harford schools.

"A lot of teen-agers and even parents see alcohol as a 'safer' alternative to other drugs, such as marijuana ," she said.

Matrangola said parents have a responsibility to never tolerate underage drinking.

"There should be no underage drinking in the home," he said. For example, Matrangola said, parents should not allow teen-agers to drink at sleep-over parties -- even if no one is driving.

"It is never OK for teen-agers to drink," he said.

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