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Monday, April 16, 2012

Troopers teach students importance of safe driving

Peninsula Clarion
Jerzy Shedlock
Nikiski High School student Ben Carstens maneuvers through an impaired-driving course wearing beer goggles provided by a regional traffic unit. The unit taught ninth- through 10th-grade students about impaired driving and distracted driving.
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Latest by spwright 2 years 19 weeks ago

Driving a mobility scooter, Nikiski High School students maneuvered an orange-coned course to demonstrate impaired driving.

They wore "fatal goggles," also known as drunk goggles, and scooted through a narrow lane following the directions of an Alaska State Trooper. Various goggles replicate several degrees of blood-alcohol levels, ranging from 0.08 to 0.25.

Sophomore Bella Fiora managed to complete the course but did collide with a handful of cones. Her classmates cheered as she backed into an imaginary garage fixed by four cones.

A three-member regional traffic unit Thursday relayed the dangers of impaired and distracted driving to the Nikiski students. The law enforcement officials supplemented their safe-driving lecture with the driving course and by having two young drivers share a severe crash story.

Sgt. Eugene Fowler began the assembly by discussing the self-imposed hazards of driving, like texting while driving and aggressive driving.

"There are some questions you need to ask yourself before driving," Fowler said to the crowd of students. "Am I safe to drive ... Am I distracted by anything, like a phone or other passengers?"

The Bureau of Highway Patrol has three regional teams around the state who focus on driving enforcement, investigation and education. The Kenai Peninsula team is located in Soldotna and consists of two Troopers and one Kenai Police Department officer.

Texting causes drivers to travel at erratic speeds, weaving and veering into oncoming traffic, Fowler said.

"It's the same things officers look for with DUI enforcement," he said.

He also mentioned House Bill 255; legislation that makes it a crime to text while driving. The Alaska House on Tuesday passed the bill.

In 2008, lawmakers passed a bill that was intended to ban texting while driving, but it didn't say "texting" anywhere in the law. The measure was challenged in court, as Kenai Judge Jennifer Wells determined the Legislature should have been explicit if it meant to prohibit the activity.

Bill language says texting while driving has been illegal since the law was passed, and the judge's decision is "legally incorrect."

Of the drivers under 20 who are involved in car accidents, 16 percent reported to have been distracted, Fowler said.

Aggressive driving -- speeding, following other cars too close, failing to use turn signals -- is inconsiderate of human life, he said.

"If you're cruising down the road, and you're not taking into consideration the other drivers; that's your first mistake," he said.

Fowler led two assemblies on his visit to Nikiski Middle-High School. The juniors and seniors received a longer, in-depth look at impaired driving. The Trooper displayed a body bag to the upperclassmen to portray the consequences of drunk driving.

In 2011, there were 17 fatal crashes in which 20 people died on the Peninsula, Fowler said.

In 2010, more than 10,000 people in the United States died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes -- one every 51 minutes, according the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration.

All high school students, however, had a chance to watch their classmates attempt the scooter course. The four students who attempted the course during the first assembly failed to finish without, at minimum, nudging one of the cones. The course included turns, slalom and reversing.

The lightheartedness of the scooter course was put to rest as Rebecca Axtell, a senior at Kenai Central High School, recounted her near death experience.

Axtell and her friend Tasha Waterbury were returning from Anchorage. They had made an impromptu stop in Seward and, as a result, were running late.

It was April 3, and the roads were dry. She decided to speed.

She lost control of her vehicle going around a corner. Her vehicle was traveling at about 80 miles per hour, she recalls.

The small, silver sedan tumbled down a hill colliding with three trees before coming to rest on its roof. All three impacts with the trees were on the passenger side of the car, and emergency responders medevaced Waterbury to Seattle for treatment.

When Axtell awoke hanging upside-down, Waterbury did not respond, Axtell said.

Waterbury suffered a scapula fracture, a punctured lung and her pelvis broke in three spots. She remained in the hospital for two weeks and immobile for another five-and-a-half weeks. A metal plate and screws now keep her pelvis in place.

"I'll feel it for the rest of my life," she said.

Images of the crash were projected on the back wall of the gymnasium. The photos captured little else than twisted metal.

Struggling to keep her composure, Axtell lamented the decision before a large group of her peers.

"The Troopers didn't know how we survived," she said.

"I have to live with the guilt of hurting my friend. She could've gone to work, and I could've gone to school the next day. I encourage you to slow down; take your time. All that matters is your safety and the safety of your friends."

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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Latest by spwright 2 years 19 weeks ago