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Virtual drive is crash course Simulator schools Starpoint students on realities of the road

Starpoint High School's juniors and seniors are learning the downside of putting the pedal to the metal during gym classes this week by driving in virtual reality.

Using a Drive Square simulator -- a computer program that tests a person's driving skills in a wide variety of scenarios, including travel on black ice and in heavy road construction -- many of the teenagers found themselves the unwitting creators of carnage and catastrophe.

The program was hooked up to a golf cart and set up video-game style, with students wearing special goggles to see the roadway on screen in three dimensions.

On Wednesday, senior Nicholas J. Zaccarella, 17, found his car crossing the center of a curved mountain roadway and running head-on into an oncoming vehicle as he tried to traverse a large sheet of black ice.

"I was only going 30 mph. It wasn't even over the speed limit," he said.

On his second try, Nick slowed down to 20 mph, but still lost control, crossed the roadway and went hurtling off a cliff.

"The conditions were so bad I should have been going even slower," Nick concluded.

Niagara County Sheriff James R. Voutour said the $30,000 simulator was brought into the county after members of area police agencies had conversations with Gil Licata and Daniel Johnson, the principals, respectively, of Starpoint and Wilson high schools.

A student from each of those schools -- Katlyn Gosch of Starpoint and Timothy Callaghan of Wilson -- died during the past couple of years in weather-related traffic accidents.

"We wanted to do some type of training to stop this kind of thing from happening," Voutour said.

Trooper Mark Badding also was among several law enforcement officers on hand to run the program, and James W. Ward, an adviser to State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, said he was on hand to view the simulator program because the senator is interested in finding a way to make it available to all county high schools.

The program tested, and taught, the young classroom drivers.

Senior Michael G. Crage, 17, decided to speed through a yellow to make it through an intersection, and ended up hitting a pedestrian.

"I could have avoided it by stopping before the light turned red instead of hurrying," he said. "It taught me to be more careful and probably a better driver."

Not only boys had trouble.

Junior Erica L. Levolsky, 16, struck a bicyclist who had turned in front of her.

"I was just driving down the middle of the road and he turned in front of me," she said. "I don't have my driver's permit yet so that was the first time I ever got behind some sort of wheel. It taught me you really have to watch what's going on around you when you drive because some things happen when you're not expecting it."

Voutour said the program is important because teenagers and young adults are the most vulnerable people on the road.

"They have the least respect when they get behind a wheel because they haven't learned [how dangerous] a vehicle can be," the sheriff said. "They are the most likely to be involved in crashes. The highest [traffic] death rate is among 16- to 24-year-olds. They are more likely to die in a car accident than anyone else.

"The simulator is hopefully one way we can lower this statistic, because it exposes kids to real world effects of driving under many conditions, including snow and black ice."

One important lesson Trooper Chris Pyc said the students learned was how dangerous speed can be.

"I think they are learning to reduce speeds when they see hazards because they can see with the simulator what can happen when they don't. It also makes them more aware of signs, speed limits and traffic lights ahead," Pyc said.

Marty Forrester, a vice president with Drive Square of Alexandria, Va., said his company's simulator is designed "to bring an awareness to young drivers so they can learn to be observant and react to different events that occur on the road every day."

He said the simulator replicates all types of conditions and allows students to make mistakes in virtual reality instead of on the highway because it shows them what they need to do.

"For example," he said, "they can see they are lousy drivers when they are text-messaging or talking on a cell phone. They can see they need to look at intersections before they go through them even if they have the right of way."

Holly E. Scharnweber, a 17-year-old junior, and her classmate, Melinda E. Reeb, 16, were among the students Wednesday who saw the power of the simulator.

"It was scary," Holly said. "I was trying to pass this large truck and hit an oncoming car head-on. I also ran off the road trying to miss things twice. I did terrible."

She got better after she slowed down and paid more attention to her surroundings, much to the relief of Melinda, her simulator passenger.

"The head-on crash was definitely pretty scary . . .," she said. "I'll drive with her [for real] as long as she's a defensive driver."

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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