Neuqua Valley get a hands-on lesson in distracted driving

Vanessa Hughes drove two laps around the makeshift course set up behind the Gold Campus of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville on Wednesday.

She, like her classmates, is counting down the number of days until she can get her driver’s license.

During Hughes’ turn behind the wheel, all she had to do was keep the driver’s education vehicle between the large orange cones that marked the inner lane and the smaller multicolored saucer disc cones that created the outer boundary line.

Normally it would have been an easy spin around the parking lot had it not been for the “drunk” goggles Vanessa wore for the first lap, and the texting she was doing on the second lap.

“I felt confident both texting and driving and with the goggles,” Vanessa said.

Everyone watching would beg to differ.

Keeping the vehicle between the lines proved to be a huge challenge, for Vanessa as well as every student who sat in the driver’s seat. Many a lap involved the student driver shifting the car in park so a teacher could pull a cone from beneath the car.

Driver’s education teacher Michael Cook said students actually did worse when they were driving while texting than when they wore the drunken-driving goggles.

“That is not to say drinking and driving is better. It’s more of an example that inexperienced drivers should not be distracted,” Cook said.

Cook said when students wore the goggles that are made to simulate blood-alcohol content twice the legal limit, the students tended to drive very slowly and cautiously with both hands on the wheel.

When they took off the goggles and had to navigate the course while texting a grocery list, students most often would veer to the right, over the outer cone lines.

“I wiped out the whole corner,” said fellow student Kate Ireland, “and that was with the goggles and texting.”

Another student left the course completely.

Cook said the texting drivers also more often mistook the gas pedal with the brake pedal and forced the teacher in the car to hit the brakes.

After just once around the track, a few students complained the goggles made them feel a bit dizzy. The teachers said they were woozy, too, and they weren’t even wearing the goggles. The teachers were eager to take turns replacing rolled-over cones to avoid another lap of erratic moves, the constant stopping and starting, and driving in circles.

The behind-the-wheel portion was paired with a quick lesson on how to deal with a traffic stop by Naperville Police Officer Jennifer Johnsen, the Gold Campus resource officer.

After discussing the reasons an officer might pull over a driver, Johnsen pulled out another set of goggles and simulated a field sobriety test.

Students were asked to walk five steps — ankle to toe — along a straight red line on the floor, turn and return back the same way. They were asked to repeat the process with the goggles.

No matter how hard they tried, no one was able to come close to matching their first walk without the eyewear. Every student tried a different method to remain balanced, whether raising their arm or shifting their body weight.

“The line moved,” said Kate, trying to convince her classmates the cause of her unsteadiness.

Although the teachers could not specifically simulate it in the classroom, Cook also emphasized the importance of not driving while drowsy. He said people should think twice about driving after being awake for more than 17 hours because sleepiness can have the same impact on driving as someone driving drunk.