Driving simulator teaches rural teens safety lessons

6:31 PM, Mar 16, 2011   |    comments
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About a quarter of Tennesseans live in rural areas.

But more than half of all roadway deaths happen in those areas.

University of Tennessee engineering students are taking time out from their spring break to help educate student drivers from rural areas of East Tennessee.

"I think I just hit that thingy!" Cheyenne Freeman exclaimed.

Good thing the Cumberland County High School Junior wasn't on a real road.

She was in a driving simulator at the University of Tennessee Wednesday, programmed with a scenario designed for dozens of Cumberland County High School students.

"We will collect data while they are texting and while they are talking on the phone for 30 seconds. While they are doing this we have programmed a deer to walk out in front of them as a surprise to see how they react," UT Graduate Research Assistant Ryan Overton explained.

Cheyenne Freeman chatted on the phone and then tried to send a text. That's when she struck the virtual deer.

The simulator is one part of the UT-Institute of Transportation's Rural Teenage Driver Education Program.

Classroom instruction focuses on what makes rural driving more dangerous: longer distances, higher speeds, slower medical response times, and lower rates of seat belt use.

"They grow up driving 4-wheelers and tractors and those vehicles don't have seat belts on them so one thing we're going to emphasize is how important it is to wear your seat belt," Overton said.

Part of the program is a 'perception of driver safety' quiz. It asked the students questions such as how many people they think die in traffic accidents and what they think the most dangerous time of the day is to drive. Then students researched the actual statistics.

"There's a lot of fatal crashes in Cumberland County, more than I thought," Cumberland County High School Junior Brandi Green said.

Cheyenne learned something too.

"I definitely want to pay attention more because I'm a texter and a driver, I'll admit. But after that, it kind of scared me a little bit because it's so easy to get distracted," she said.

Thursday, students from Wartburg Central High School will take part in the program at UT.

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