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Simulator helps drivers sharpen skills and clean up their records

Lexington Police Officer Jeff Jacobs gave instructions to students who participated in operating Fayette County's Ultra Interactive Driving Simulator. The simulator cost about $13,000, which was raised through the traffic diversion program, which charges $150 to participate.
Lexington Police Officer Jeff Jacobs gave instructions to students who participated in operating Fayette County's Ultra Interactive Driving Simulator. The simulator cost about $13,000, which was raised through the traffic diversion program, which charges $150 to participate.

Baby, you can drive Larry Roberts' car — er, simulated driving machine.

But first you have to get an official invitation from Roberts, who is the Fayette County attorney. And you have to be between 16 and 18.

Roberts' office bought an Ultra Interactive Driving Simulator about three months ago for the county's traffic diversion program. In the program, certain people who get certain types of traffic tickets can get those tickets expunged from their records.

Everyone in the traffic-diversion program must spend an hour or so watching videos and listening to a police officer talk about safe driving, and they must do four hours of community service. Participants who are ages 16 to 18 also are required to drive the simulated driving machine.

"This is primarily set up for kids," Roberts said during last week's diversion session as five teens took turns on the simulator with guidance from Lexington police Officer Jeff Jacobs. "There are 300 different driving scenarios we can put somebody through on this."

The simulator is comprised of a driver's seat with a seat belt and a steering wheel — it even has turn signals — an accelerator pedal, a brake pedal and a windshield of sorts, which is really three computer screens. The simulator can have an automatic or manual transmission, depending on what the driver is used to.

Among the scenarios shown on the screen are rainy and snowy conditions, during which windshield wipers come on the screen. Other scenarios include heavy downtown traffic, and a dark and desolate country road on which a deer seems to pop up from nowhere.

The simulator gives each driver directions about things such as how fast they are to drive. When one scenario has ended, with or without an accident, the simulator gives the driver information about his or her reaction time, among other things.

"When you put all of that together, it becomes more than a video game. It makes you pay attention to what's going on," Roberts said.

"What happened?" one young driver asked as the simulator stopped unexpectedly. "You had an accident," said a student sitting behind her.

When another student hit the deer during his turn at the wheel, the screen read, "You failed this exercise."

Jacobs, one of three Lexington police officers who conduct the sessions, asked one student to try texting while she was driving on wet pavement. The young woman, cell phone in one hand, stuck both arms through the steering wheel and began texting.

"Do you realize if you have an accident, the air bag will shatter your arms?" the officer asked her.

"It's a glorified video game," Jacobs said after the class. But the simulator does teach awareness, he said. New drivers tend to focus dead center when they are behind the wheel, and it takes a couple of years for them to begin fully using their peripheral vision, he said.

Roberts' office bought the simulator for about $13,000, using money generated by the traffic-diversion program. Participants are required to pay $150 to go through the program. Roberts is now experimenting with special goggles that will give simulator operators some idea how their driving might be if they get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol or using drugs. He wants to get another simulator and take the machines to Fayette County public schools, which dropped driver education classes 32 years ago, for demonstrations and educational programs, he said.

Roberts said he thinks the Fayette County attorney's office is the only one in the state to have a driving simulator. The Kentucky Office of Highway Safety has two simulators, and it takes them to high schools throughout the state. The highway safety office also will take the machines to colleges and universities, starting with Murray State University in a couple of weeks.

Many school systems ask that the simulators be brought in out of concern about texting, said Erin Eggen, media coordinator for the office of highway safety.

"It's just something that these teenagers are using, and we realize it's causing crashes," she said. "We've heard them say they text all the time: 'I can text in my sleep,'" she said. After using one of the simulators, they find out just how much texting can affect driving, she said.

In 2009, there were 14,505 crashes caused by distracted drivers younger than 21. Of those, 4,531 resulted in injuries and 40 resulted in fatalities. Five of the deaths were attributed to cell phone use, she said.

Under a new state law beginning Jan. 1, drivers caught texting while driving will face fines.

Most of the drivers who go through Fayette County's traffic-diversion program have done so because of tickets for speeding, not stopping at traffic signals or not wearing seat belts, Roberts said. He does not allow people facing reckless driving and driving under the influence charges, or people who have been cited or charged after having an accident, to participate in the program.

"On our application, we ask drivers if they have any tickets or accidents. It's the responsibility of he driver to answer truthfully," said Lisa Ripley, a spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance. She said tickets are among several factors in determining insurance rates, and a speeding ticket alone might not affect a person's insurance rate.

Drivers ticketed for moving violations who are younger than 18 and hold a 180-day Kentucky driving permit don't have to restart the driver's license waiting period, as they usually would, if they complete a traffic diversion program, said Ann Gibson, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.