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Joseph Cruz hadn't been drinking — a fact you wouldn't have been able to tell after looking at his driving performance.

For the 17-year-old Santa Maria High School student, trouble behind the wheel started immediately after he buckled himself into the driver's seat of a modified Jeep SUV. Wearing goggles simulating the effects of alcohol intoxication, Cruz consistently drove under the speed limit, swerved erratically and briefly crossed over into the oncoming lane of traffic.

No more than 20 seconds into his "drunken" joyride, Cruz was pulled off the road and handed a slip: His (simulated) blood alcohol content level was measured at .131 — well over the .08 legal limit.

"It felt weird and uncomfortable," he said of his experience. "My vision was really blurry and I could barely see the street lights. It was hard to focus."

Thankfully for Cruz (and the general public), the Jeep SUV never left the Santa Maria High School grounds. 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 Friday. The event, sponsored by Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, seeks to raise awareness on the effect texting or other substances have on an individual's driving performance.

"Students get to watch and see their classmates go from somewhat good drivers ... to swerving off the road or perhaps colliding with another object," said Mallory McKenzie, simulator operator on the Arrive Alive Tour.

"There's a general surprise [from students] that they can't complete this successfully," she continued. "There's a lot of overconfidence when it comes to alcohol consumption and distracted driving. People don't think these situations are going to happen to them [when] they definitely do."

Statistics provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate that 25 percent of drivers between 15 and 20 years old killed in motor vehicle accidents had a blood alcohol content level of .08 at the time of the crash. Drivers on a cellphone are similarly as impaired as those with a blood alcohol content level of .08, according to a study conducted by the University of Utah.

"We want to reduce the number of children we see in motor vehicle accidents due to distracted or impaired driving," said Jessica Harris, a pediatric injury prevention specialist with Cottage Hospital. Harris said her primary duty is to educate children and youth about risky situations in hope of reducing the number admitted to the hospital's trauma center.

Calling impaired or distracted driving a "great example of a preventable injury," Harris hoped to persuade students to commit to being a safe, responsible driver.

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"We want them to think about who they can call and what they can do to be safer in a vehicle," she said. "Every time they get in the vehicle, they should make sure they're buckled up and ... keep their cellphone away and out of sight. If they're going go to parties, we always recommend to have a designated driver."

Drivers convicted of a first-time DUI may face up to $1,800 in fines and may have their driving privileges suspended or revoked. Additional fees will be imposed through their insurance provider, and drivers must now file a SR-22 (a financial responsibility filing) with the state Department of Motor Vehicles for three years. According to McKenzie, the total cost of a DUI (including fines, fees, classes and insurance increases) can routinely exceed $10,000.

While he only has a learner's permit now, Cruz called the simulator a valuable and eye-opening experience.

"It teaches you some valuable lessons about [impaired] or distracted driving," he said. "I think my friends should totally try it."

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.