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Monday, January 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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U-Hi students get a closeup look at consequences of distracted driving

The video inside the virtual reality headset starts out innocently enough: a driver merging into normal traffic.

But there is trouble ahead.

AT&T on Tuesday brought its distracted-driving simulator to University High School to show students in an eyes-on scenario just how easy it is to crash and die while using a smart phone.

In the simulator seat, built to mimic a small vehicle, the viewer becomes the virtual driver, but without the ability to control the vehicle.

The viewer is truly along for the ride becoming the texting-phone-using driver, who is about to lose it.

There are at least four close calls before the big crash.

“Air bags are coming out and glass is flying all over,” said Christine Stephens, one of about 100 students who was taking the simulator ride on Tuesday.

The video ends with the driver looking down from above at the crash scene with emergency responders.

“I think it was really cool,” she said of the simulation. “I found myself at times hitting the brakes.”

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Stephens, a junior and student body officer, acknowledged she has used her smart phone while driving in the past.

But she signed a pledge to the AT&T distracted driver safety campaign during a previous visit by the company.

She said she hasn’t done it since.

If a friend is driving and starts using their phone, “I tell them to stop,” she said.

AT&T launched the “It Can Wait” campaign in 2010 and has traveled the country gaining 10 million pledges to not use phones while driving, which is illegal.

“We want you to use your phones, but we want you to be responsible with them,” said Christopher Johnson, the AT&T representative at U-Hi on Tuesday.

“It literally takes that one glance and your life could change,” he said.

While Tuesday’s focus was on new or future drivers, the campaign works with adults as well.

A commuter survey by AT&T found that half of all drivers admitted to texting while driving.

Of those, virtually all of them - 98 percent - acknowledged the inherent risk, the company said.

Of the people who have the chance to experience the simulator, 90 percent of them said it changed their attitudes toward smart phone use while driving.

Across the country, more than 3,100 people were killed and another 431,000 injured in collisions linked to distracted driving in 2014.

In Washington state, distracted driving carries a $124 fine.

In Idaho, where the fine is $85, distracted driving was a factor in 16 percent of fatalities in the past five years, according to state traffic officials.

Stephens said seeing people using their phones in traffic is very common. Drivers on the phone are most commonly observed at traffic lights, she said.

“Just because you are stopped, you are still driving,” and need to be aware of what is around you, she said.

Wally Watson, the adviser to the Associated Student Body, said U-Hi takes traffic safety education seriously.

“Kids are not invincible,” Watson said. “We are always doing something for distracted driving.”

Johnson said that distracted driving has become so common that more youth drivers are now dying as a result of smart phone use than alcohol impairment.

“It’s the new killer,” he said.

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