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Oct 19, 1998

SOBER STUDENTS GET LESSON ON DRUNK DRIVING

Rebecca Dorschel’s eyes flew open and her body tensed as the car swung wide and slammed to a stop, dragging an orange cone along with it.

Rebecca, 15, was a backseat passenger in a car driven by her cousin, Joel Webb,. She had ridden with Joel before, but never on a ride like this one where everything felt out of control.

Rebecca and Joel were two of the hundreds of Nansemond-Suffolk Academy upper school students who experienced, firsthand but in total safety, a drive with a drunk driver.

The frightening but enlightening rides were in the Drunk Driving Simulator, a 1996 Dodge Neon that the Chrysler Corporation has modified with an on-board computer programmed to delay the car’s steering and braking response time, simulating the slowed abilities of a driver under the influence.

“It felt really weird when the brakes weren’t working at all and the steering locked up so I couldn’t control it,” Joel said.

“And he is normally a very good driver,” Rebecca added loyally.

The Simulator was developed in 1988 to allow sober drivers, and passengers, to experience the dangers of drinking and driving while on a controlled course with a trained instructor in the car. The instructor enters the driver’s weight and the number of hypothetical drinks needed to reach a blood alcohol level of approximately .13 to .15 and the computer takes over. A blood alcohol level of .08 is the legal limit in Virginia.

A separate kill brake allows the instructor to disengage the computer or shut down the engine when necessary.

Kerry Dunaway, Simulator instructor, said that his wisecracks and the upbeat music that filled the parking lot are all intended to make the experience a fun, but memorable one. The nervous laughter and joking around that he normally hears from the teens turns to serious thought after they have knocked down a few pop-up pedestrians along the course.

“I love this job because it gives you an opportunity to maybe make a change in someone’s life,” he said.

It took an entire year for NSA’s 75-member SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving) club to bring the Simulator to the Academy, but their timing was good. Spring partying for proms and graduations makes the “don’t drink and drive” lessons most relevant.

“Overall I find that teenagers are receptive and responsible, more so than the adults,” Dunaway said.

Joel agreed, noting that most of the NSA students understand the importance of a designated driver.

Karen Konefal, a parent volunteer who helped register students to drive or ride in the Simulator, has a son and daughter in the school.

“You can talk to them until you are blue in the face but it is not like actually driving like you are out of control,” she said. “Hopefully this way they will remember to anticipate and not get caugt in the moment of a bad situation.”