The collision wasn't fatal, fortunately, but it could have been avoided if the driver didn't have a cell phone in her hand at the time. That was the lesson Tuesday during an exercise on distracted driving.
Jan Gritsch, trauma program manager at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, delivered a somber and sobering message to a group of teen drivers: "We've had a few young people who have been severely injured from distracted driving and these are kids who come in with severe head injuries, who had planned to graduate high school and go on to college, but the most they can muster (after the accident) is to eat and maybe feed themselves, learn how to dress themselves. It takes quite a few years to recover from something that significant. We make choices that we really have to realize who we impact when we make a poor choice such as distracted driving."
Seven teens and one teacher put their skills to the test at the Raceway in Sonoma against a course designed to simulate what it's like to drive on city streets while dealing with everyday distractions. Among the teens were four from Mesa Verde High School, two students from Marin Catholic in Kentfield and one from Sonoma State University.
Thompson and fellow instructor Tim Moses took the drivers through the course with a selection of four Mitsubishis.
"Dealing with the cones, it's a little difficult," said Marin Catholic senior Natalia Wallace, 17. "but it's more realistic, because it's distractions like biking, people walking on the street. It's definitely realistic."
The volunteers went through drills that included lane changes and driving while texting. Drivers were graded on how long it took them to complete the course and how many cones they hit during the course.
"If you think about what those cones represent, they're basically a crash. They're hitting a curb, they're hitting a car, something that is not part of the roadway," Moses said.
Marin Catholic senior C.J. Lyons, 17, excelled at making last-second lane changes at highway speeds, but even he had a little trouble driving and texting. He completed the course in 49 seconds without distractions, but while trying to text and open the sunroof, he took 1 minute, 1 second, and knocked over a cone.
"The proof is right here that your ability to control the car, placing it where you need it to go at any kind of consistent speed is very difficult to do when you're being distracted," Thompson said.
Wallace completed the course in 1 minute, 1.30 seconds while dealing with distractions. She completed the course in 54.10 seconds without any distractions.
Wallace offered this tip for other drivers: "I usually hand my phone over to someone else in the car to text for me when it's something important."
Lyons pointed out one of the biggest dangers facing drivers, including himself, can be drowsy driving during an early-morning commute.
Teenagers shouldn't be singled out as the only drivers likely to be distracted. How often have you seen an adult talking on a cell phone while behind the wheel, maybe while driving the kids home from school? The one adult, a part-time PE teacher in Sacramento, who joined the exercise had as much trouble as any of the younger drivers.
The event was designed to increase awareness about the dangers of distracted driving that may cause fatal or injury accidents,
especially among young people.
According to the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,092 people were killed and an estimated 416,000 injured in auto accidents involving distracted drivers in 2010, and distracted driving was a factor in 11 percent of all fatal accidents involving people 20 years old and younger.
"If you make a choice to text and drive or maybe do some kind of distracted driving, it affects you, it affects your family, but it's like a drop in a pond — it has a ripple effect," Gritsch said. "That ripple effect affects you, your family, your friends your aunts, your uncles, all the people who care for you in the hospital, all the people who care for you out in the field. So if you make a choice like that, I hope you'll think about all the people you'll affect."