Refitted vehicle lets teens feel effects of driving drunk Simulator shows how reflexes slow in impaired condition

November 16, 1997|By Bonita Formwalt | Bonita Formwalt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Charlene Pierpont, a 17-year-old senior at Glen Burnie High School, climbed into the Neon Drunk Driving Simulator at school Friday, sure that driver education and the license she got last month had prepared her.

Less than a minute after touching the driver's seat, she drove through a guardrail and plowed into a pedestrian.

The guardrail was constructed of orange, plastic pylon cones, and the pedestrian was a pop-up character. But the effect was sobering, just the same.

Sober is the goal of a program sponsored nationwide by the Chrysler Corp. and locally by Tate Dodge and Tate Chrysler Plymouth.

The program lets students experience the danger of drinking and driving -- without alcohol. Students drive a specially equipped Neon, which is programmed to delay steering and braking response time in much the same way that cocktails can impair a driver's ability to react. Student drivers take an initial practice spin around the course. On the second lap, an instructor activates the computer simulation program.

The difference is alarming.

Charlene, who whipped around the course on the first lap, found herself, the second time around, steering off course repeatedly. What was most startling was her inability to stop in time when a pedestrian popped up.

"You can't control the car," said the amazed driver. "You try to stop the car and you don't stop. You try to turn and you don't turn."

She said the experience reinforced a personal decision not to drink and drive.

April McElwain, 17 and a senior, said nearly the same thing after her drive, asserting, "I'm sure I would never drink and drive."

Chris Miller, a 16-year-old senior admitted riding with a driver who had "a few" to drink. Chris left the test track with a new knowledge of how little control his friend had of the car.

Senior Kevin Templeton also has first-hand knowledge of the danger of drunken driving. Last spring, the 17-year-old was a passenger in car driven by a friend who was drinking. The driver lost control and the car swerved, but no one was hurt.

"I was scared," said Kevin. "That was the first, last and only time I drove with someone who's drinking."

Chris and Kevin were lucky, said Anne Arundel County police Officer Brian McClellan. Working the night shift in Northern District, he said he has seen many accidents involving teen-agers and alcohol.

The biggest problem with young drivers is their limited understanding of how alcohol affects them, McClellan said as he watched another driver knocking down a pedestrian on the course.

"They think they're under control," he said. "When they get picked up, they stand there, thinking they're fine. They can't believe we can tell they're drunk."

Gazing back at the test course McClellan added, "This will definitely show them how much control they don't have."

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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