Try 1 month for 99¢

Though it might be awhile before Jordan Huizenga gets behind the wheel of the car, on Thursday he was one of hundreds of Orcutt Academy High School students who strapped on a headset and buckled into the driver's seat of a modified Jeep SUV to experience the danger of distracted and impaired driving.

Driving up a mountain road, he glanced down at his phone to peck out a question to his friends: "What time is the movie at?" Tasked with avoiding obstacles and maintaining control of the vehicle at 40 mph, Huizenga had veered into the oncoming lane of traffic, hugged the shoulder of the road and almost spun out within seconds of shifting his gaze.

"I didn't expect it to be as hard as it was," he said after receiving a mock citation for his questionable driving performance. "When you look down and you look back up, boom, there's a corner. But when you looked down at first, there was no corner — it was just straight. You just don't know what to expect."

As part of its national Arrive Alive Tour, UNITE, a Michigan-based health and wellness organization, brought its impaired and distracted driving simulator to the school. The event was sponsored by Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital as way to raise awareness of the effect texting and other substances have on an individual's driving performance.

"This is the first year we've ever had them," Principal Rhett Carter said, adding that a majority of the school's 145 seniors and a portion of its roughly 150 juniors drive to school daily.

He said the importance of Thursday's visit was underscored by a fatal six-vehicle collision on Highway 135 at Union Valley Parkway — roughly a mile from the school — that occurred that morning. Though an investigation into a cause of the crash is ongoing, drugs and/or alcohol were believed to be a factor.

"We want to show the kids what it's like to be behind the wheel when distracted or impaired," said Jessica Aten, a pediatric injury prevention specialist with Cottage Hospital. "We want to get them to think about the dangers of [this behavior] and what it would look like."

According to a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration report released last March, 2,610 teens between 15 and 19 years old were killed in motor vehicle crashes during 2016. Ten percent, or 263, of the fatalities for drivers in that age range involved distracted driving.

Grace Howard, a freshman, said it was hard for her to keep the truck steady when driving under the simulated effects of marijuana consumption. Her head felt heavy and vision was shaky, prompting her to swerve and drive off the paved road before colliding into a wall.

"I didn't expect it to be as hard," she said. "It was really different when I had to do it."

Aten said she hopes students will take away the idea that "driving is a skill" students need to take seriously.

"We view it as kind of a passive activity," she added, "but we see situations like this on the road every single day. Driving distracted or impaired is going to increase your chances of being in a motor vehicle collision."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.