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Students learn rules of the road

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Course teaches safety behind the wheel and the dangers of distracted driving

By Shaina Stockton

INDEPENDENCE — Sixteen years and three months: this is the minimum age requirement set by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for a driver’s license, which makes 16 an age of important milestones for both teenagers and their parents.

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This is a time when students begin taking on important responsibilities for the safety of themselves and others, while parents simultaneously begin to step back and trust their kids to handle these responsibilities.

State requirements don’t make obtaining a driver’s license too easy; but while teenagers cram the basics of driving — traffic signs, right-of-way, turn signals — schools use their driver education programs to serve gentle reminders of what is truly at stake when they finally get behind the wheel.

This month, Grayson County High School’s driver education courses offered two separate lectures and demonstrations about sharing the road with others, and the importance of driver awareness. These courses moved beyond the mechanics of a vehicle and rules to avoid traffic tickets, venturing into the less pleasant but very real topic of what can happen in a matter of seconds if these rules aren’t taken seriously.

“Share the Road,” a national highway safety program that teaches students important tips to maintain a safe relationship on the road with everything from large tractor trailers to motorcycles, provided a demonstration in the parking lot of the high school on April 6.

Speakers Charlie Demchock, Clarence Jenkins, Derrick Whittle and David Boyer gave four student groups a brief lecture on the importance of understanding the road from the perspective of a truck driver, which transitioned into each class breaking into smaller groups to take a tour of the ins and outs of a real tractor trailer.

One by one, students climbed into the driver’s seat for a preventative lecture concerning blind spots in a tractor trailer, which are significantly larger than a typical car, truck or SUV.

“First, I want you to look in that mirror on your right,” Demchock told a student after he’d closed the door and perched comfortably behind the wheel.

The student did as he asked, and Demchock continued. “Do you see the white truck beside you?” The student shook his head.

Later, during a walk around the vehicle, students saw this same truck parked just beside the vehicle, seemingly easy to notice if not for the blind spot to the right of the tractor. “Our blind spot on this side is larger, so never pass us on the right,” Demchock said. “If you do find yourself on our right, and the truck puts on its signal, slow down or speed up immediately.”

Next, Demchock pointed to a stop sign at the edge of the parking lot, the distance roughly the length of a football field. “When I tap the window, I want you to hit your brakes,” he said, before rapping his knuckles on the sill. The student immediately put his foot on the brake. “In that time just now, it would take you from here to there to stop this truck,” he said.

Finally, Demchock stepped away from the drivers’ window and stood to the left of the truck. “Look in the mirror now, and tell me if you can see me.” The student nodded, and Demchock shifted over a few more steps. “How about now?” The student shook his head no.

Sharing the Road with Trucks

At the conclusion of the demonstration, each student received a pamphlet with the following tips for sharing the road:

• When driving behind a truck, maintain at least a four-second following distance. Stay far enough back so you can see the driver in the mirrors, or any debris that may be in the road. Following too close obstructs your view of the road ahead and leaves you no time to react to emergencies.

• Look for the driver in the mirror before you begin to pass, then move quickly past the truck and only pull back in front once a safety cushion is established. Make sure you see both the truck’s headlights and some pavement before pulling back in front.

• When passing, never linger alongside a truck. There are large blind spots on all four sides of a truck. Front, back and both sides, with the largest blind spot on the right. For motorcycle riders: due to the size and speed of today’s bikes, it’s easy for riders to quickly move into blind spots and become invisible to the driver.

• When riding motorcycles as a group in a stagger pattern, it is safest to pass the truck in single file, staying to the far side of the line.

• When passing a truck, be aware of strong crosswinds or air turbulence coming off the truck. These winds could be strong enough to push you out of your lane.

• Never cut in front of a truck. Fully loaded trucks can weigh up to 80,000 pounds and take the length of a football field to stop.

• Where possible, avoid passing on the right side. The right blind spot runs the length of the truck and extends out three lanes.

For Instructors, it’s Personal

Together, the instructors for the Share the Road demonstration have racked up 16 million safe accident-free miles: Jenkins and Boyer each have 5 million, Whittle has 3.5 million and Demchock has 2.5 million.

The instructors each shared their personal reasons for becoming a part of this nationwide effort. A few of them shared chilling personal accounts of accidents they had witnessed on the road due to lack of awareness, texting and even drunk driving.

Boyer says he will never forget seeing the body of a teenage girl, who crashed into the truck beside her because she was busy texting her best friend. At the scene, he spoke to the father, who dropped to his knees and cried over her premature death. He’d told Boyer that she was the valedictorian of her class, involved in several student groups, her whole future in front of her. He said that he’d just bought her the car as a present.

“Dad just bought me a new car,” was the last text message the girl ever sent.

“That was the moment when I resolved to prevent accidents like these from happening. This is why we are showing you these blind spots, to warn you and others about the dangers of not paying attention.”

Whittle witnessed someone he knew being pulled from a truck after crashing on a four-lane highway. “We all have a passion for this. We want to educate you, because it only takes a nanosecond for you to lose your life,” he said.

Distracted driving is a pet peeve for Jenkins, but drunk driving, he adds, is infuriating. He shared that he was once on the end of a frightening call from his wife in the middle of the night, who told him that their entire family was piled in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. “They were 15 minutes from home when they came up on a work zone, and there was a state trooper standing right there when a drunk driver crashed into their car,” he said.

Later, when he saw the wreckage, he was both amazed and horrified at the state of the back seat where his grandson had been sleeping. “The car had almost formed a cocoon around him. It’s amazing to me that they got out alive,” he said.

“We aren’t saying these things to scare you,” Demchock told the students. “We travel all over the country to do this. If some of this sinks in, and we save just one person’s life through this program, then we have done our job.”

Texting Demonstration and ‘Beer Goggles’

On April 7, Carilion continued driver awareness efforts with a distracted driving demonstration for the high school students.

“April is National Distracted Driver Awareness month, so we do these presentations to make students aware of how difficult it is to focus on the road with distractions,” said instructor Cassie McAllister.

Students participated in a number of activities, including an obstacle course where they had to weave a bike through traffic cones while texting; and a corn hole tournament with the added detriment of literal “beer goggles.”

As she handed them out, McAllister explained that the goggles give students a sense of vision after four, eight or even 24 beers. Instructors cleared the hallway and ducked into the classroom as the students lobbed the bean bags everywhere but at the target.

“Sorry!” a student called out after a bag glanced off of someone’s skull.

Another student unsuccessfully tried to line up a straight shot with the goggles on. “This is center… right?” she said, waving her arm slightly to the left and then sending the bag straight into the wall.

Following the April 7 demonstration, students gathered around a banner in the hallway, signing a pledge to always pay attention and be alert when driving.