Kids climb aboard to learn how to be safer drivers.
Justin Noel Had a Bus
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. According to the National Safety Council, more than 40,000 people were killed on the roads last year, with distracted driving listed as a major contributor.
From coast to coast, people are joining together to encourage people to put down their phones and other distractions and drive during April.
One of them is Corporal Justin Noel of the Cherokee County, Kan., Sheriff’s Department.
Six years ago, Justin had an idea. He wanted to build a driving simulator on wheels to teach teen driver safety.
As a school resource officer, Justin’s goal was to help protect teens during that first year behind the wheel by giving them an interactive way to experience texting while driving via a driving simulator.
“I wanted something that would allow me to pull up at a school and let the students participate immediately without having to set up anything,” he says.
His idea started small. He asked the county school board for a bus to use as a driving simulator. They approved his request and gave him a small school bus that was no longer in use.
“It sat in my driveway for months because I didn’t have enough money to turn it into a driving simulator vehicle,” he says. “I got a few hundred dollar donations here and there but not enough to build it.”
A chance encounter with a State Farm® representative at a Kansas Department of Transportation safety conference led to $32,500 in grants from the insurance company to The SEAT (Safer Education About Traveling) since 2012. This includes a $20,000 grant awarded in 2017 to replace the primary vehicle used for the SEAT programs.
Thanks to these grants, the SEAT bus and its texting and driving simulators travel the tri-state district of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
“Most schools send students out in groups to use the three simulators,” he says. “You can tell who plays video games and who does not but most of them get comfortable fairly quickly.”
Times have changed during his 18 years as a deputy. Driving distracted has grown with all the options available in vehicles. Phones, GPS screens, music, movies and other distractions take drivers’ eyes off the road.
“I tell these kids that, before cell phones, no one ever drove with their eyes in their lap,” he says.
For the texting simulator, Justin has one student “drive” while several others watch. Once the simulator begins, he sends a text message to the driver’s phone.
“They start texting and most of them will crash,” he says. “At first, they think they’ve got it down pretty good. But when they pick up that phone, they end up hitting a tree or veering off a cliff.”
SEAT works with 8th graders through high school and even college students. Justin says the 8th graders do not know how to drive, the high school students know it’s dangerous to text and drive, and the college students may have gotten complacent and are impressed with the realistic simulators as reminders to drive safe.
“Most students are eager to try out the simulators,” he says. “Occasionally there will be a Donnie Downer who pretends that he’s too cool to try it but, in all likelihood, is embarrassed he’ll mess up. I tell them there’s no pressure. That usually works.”
“Without the grants from State Farm, that original bus would probably still be taking up space in my driveway instead of helping save lives of teen drivers,” Justin says. “I’m grateful to the company and the grants it has provided over the past six years.”
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