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Virtual-reality experience aims to 'drive' home importance of safe travel habits for WSHS teens


The Arrive Alive challenge was high tech, but the message was relatively simple for the Willow Springs High School students who donned virtual reality goggles and got behind the wheel of an SUV.

While it is generally frowned upon to wear video-gaming apparatus while in the driver’s seat of an operational vehicle, these students were actually using a setup specially outfitted to simulate the effects of impaired driving on reaction time and and increased chances of being involved in a motor vehicle accident.

The virtual driver's progress through simulated city streets includes traffic lights, pedestrians and other vehicles which are both moving and parked. The driver's vision is distorted and the gas and brake pedals and the steering wheel are rigged to be more difficult to use, reflecting delayed reactions by drivers that are distracted or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The effect the simulation had on the virtual drivers’ ability to maintain control could be seen on a screen that showed the experience from the driver's point of view; weaving in and out of lanes and difficulty steering, slowing, and stopping were common experiences.

The Arrive Alive Tour, a program offered by UNITE, a health and wellness technology organization, is sponsored by the Southeast Coalition for Roadway Safety and the Missouri Department of Transportation, and some of the students in Willow Springs took the virtual wheel on Buckle Up Phone Down Day, which was recognized Wednesday.

To combat a fatal crash rate that is three times higher for teens than for drivers age 20 or older, the program hopes to "drive" home the message that driving impaired — no matter the reason — increases the risk of death or serious injury to themselves or others.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic fatalities in 2021 rose 10.9% nationwide, and driver distraction is responsible for more than 58% of teen crashes.

Drivers age 16 to 20 are 17 times more likely to die in a crash when they have a blood alcohol content of .08%, the legal limit in Missouri, than when they have not been drinking, those statistics show. The Arrive Alive team's mission is to educate drivers on the dangers and consequences of impaired and distracted driving, and to create lifelong safe driving habits, event organizers said.

In all, about 330 Willow Springs High School students, from freshman through senior grades, took part and signed a pledge to put their phones down and buckle up while driving. School Resource Officer Jeff Cunningham added the event was a great opportunity to promote Buckle Up Phone Down Day.

As of August, it is now the law in Missouri for drivers to either use a hands-free feature while driving, or simply not use cell phones or other electronic devices while behind the wheel.