Cooper_Davis_distracted_driving

Renaissance High School student Cooper Davis tries the distracted driving simulator on Tuesday, Jan. 30./Photo by Matt Blois.

By MATT BLOIS

Renaissance High School student Cooper Davis wore virtual reality goggles as he drove down a computer generated street using one of the new distracted driving simulators purchased by Williamson County Schools to stop students from texting while driving.

He used an Xbox controller to drive the car, and a laptop displayed what he was seeing through the goggles.

The screen showed a generic street with some traffic and a few people walking around. He stopped at all the red lights and avoided running over any pedestrians, but every once in a while a phone screen popped into his vision and blocked his view of the road. He had to try and respond to the message on the phone without crashing the car, driving home the point that it’s hard to drive safely while using a phone. 

Williamson County School started using the simulators this semester. It bought 10 distracted driving systems with a $20,000 grant from the Tennessee Highway Safety Office after six students from the district died last school year in car crashes. The district is hoping that this equipment — combined with education about distracted driving — can reduce the number of students who die in car crashes.

The Highway Safety Office identified Williamson County as an area that needed more education and outreach about distracted driving, which is part of the reason that district received the grant. According to the Highway Safety Office, about a fifth of all crashes in the county involved a distracted driver, higher than any other county in the state. The total number of people who died in car crashes in Williamson County jumped from 13 in 2016 to 25 in 2017.

When Williamson County Schools applied for the funding, it first considered buying a simulator that looked more like a car, but decided to go with the virtual reality goggles instead because it provided more flexibility. This way, the googles can move easily from school to school and the district doesn’t need to find someone who can operate a car-sized simulator.

Before trying the simulators, Renaissance High Principal Brian Bass gave a presentation about the dangers of distracted driving, complete with ominous statistics and a warning not to use drugs. Despite the “This is your brain on drugs” tone, the presentation seemed to work. 

After trying out the simulator Davis said the presentation scared him a bit, but it got the message across. He admitted that he does sometimes use his phone while he drives, but the simulator probably will make him think twice before picking up his phone next time.