Crash course: Arrive Alive teaches Cayuga County students the dangers of texting, drinking while driving

AUBURN | When it comes to distracted driving, no one is safe and no one is above the law.

Most New York drivers may know that it is illegal to drive while using a cellphone, and certainly while under the influence of alcohol. They may understand that doing these things can impair their ability to react to things and be safe on the road.

But many still do it anyway. The Arrive Alive tour, which recently visited Auburn, is dedicated to making sure those people understand that the dangers and consequences of distracted driving could happen to anyone.

On Sept. 17 and 18, students from schools across Cayuga County got the chance to experience the Arrive Alive tour while it was on the campus of Cayuga Community College. The tour visits cities across the country, mostly high schools and colleges, and brings with it a plethora of material that helps educate the public on the dangerous reality of texting or drinking while driving.

“This is really aimed at all ages, but it’s more serious for the younger crowd,” said Martin Burke, a driving instructor with the Arrive Alive tour. “The less driving experience someone has, the more dangerous the combination can be.”

The program, sponsored by UNITE, is now in its eighth year and has visited Auburn annually for the past four. For its two days at CCC, a group of advocates with Arrive Alive talk to students of all ages, providing them with statistics, real-life stories and even a virtual simulation that shows the dangers of distracted driving.

As students filed onto the lawn where the tour was stationed outside CCC last week, they were greeted with a video telling the true story of a family whose lives were changed forever after a child was paralyzed in a car accident involving cellphone use. The material is meant to discourage the students from making the same mistake, but it is powerful enough to take a toll even on the tour staff.

“When I first started here, I couldn’t even watch it, and when I finally did, I felt horrible,” Burke said. “I’d been doing it with my family in the car for all this time, and what if I was in an accident?”

Burke said that everywhere the tour travels, he seems to meet someone who has been affected by a distracted driving incident, either being involved themselves or knowing someone who was. While working with the young drivers, he talks to them about the consequences of texting while driving and DWI, which can include fines, legal fees or even jail time.

“Texting has become such an epidemic,” he said. “Anyone who uses a device while driving is 23 times more likely to get in an accident. Some people just don’t realize the penalties.”

One piece of equipment that the tour brings is a vehicle rigged with virtual reality technology that allows participants to simulate driving either while using a cellphone or after having been drinking. The driver’s view is displayed on a screen in front of the crowd, letting the audience follow along, and the driver is given a ticket after the simulation ends that cites all the violations or laws they broke during the simulation.

Austin Laning, a junior at Auburn High School who had just completed the virtual drive, said he had never really thought about how dangerous distracted driving could be, but after visiting with Arrive Alive, he said he will be more conscious about being safer while behind the wheel.

“It was definitely hard to drive while under the influence,” Laning said. “My vision was blurred and it was hard to see. I know, now, you really shouldn’t drink and drive.”

Al Pola, a criminal justice teacher at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES, took his class to CCC Wednesday afternoon for the Arrive Alive experience. He said that his students all seemed to absorb the lessons, but also said that the criminal justice angle from which he approaches them with his students sheds a new light on the topic.

Pola said he discusses things such as point systems for licenses, Vehicle and Traffic Law violations and probable cause with his class in order to demonstrate the severity of the consequences for breaking these laws — and to show that it could happen to them if they are not careful.

“This is a fantastic thing for them,” he said. “Even adults have a tendency to think they can handle doing this and keep one eye on their phone and one on the road, but this proves it doesn’t matter what you think. It’s a matter of what you can and can’t do.”

The Arrive Alive tour, and Pola himself, also teach students that they have a responsibility as a passenger to make sure that the driver of the vehicle they’re in is not breaking any laws.

“I think the lesson here is the obvious: Don’t drink and drive or text and drive,” Pola said, “and if you see some one who is, I hope you have the sense to stop them.”

Burke said that in his three years working with Arrive Alive, he has seen that most of the students who participate in the program take it seriously and walk away with a new perspective on the topic. As the tour continues to travel and educate the public about distracted driving, he said he hopes people will grasp the lesson laid out in front of them and make the choice to be safe.

“We laugh and joke and it’s fun for them while they’re driving the simulator,” he said, “but at the end of the day, we make sure to tell them that we don’t want you to be that person.”