LUMBERTON — Tires squealed on Lumberton Regional Airport asphalt on Thursday as Fairmont police Officer Rachael Quiles pulled out of a simulated park position and headed around the first cone of an obstacle course — all while texting the person sitting in the patrol car beside her.
The two-minute course, part of a Robeson Community College class designed to demonstrate the dangers of distracted driving, is the first of its kind in North Carolina, according to Burnis Wilkins, coordinator of Law Enforcement Training at RCC.
Wilkins, who has been a driving instructor in the law enforcement training program at RCC for 20 years, said that new officers are often unprepared for the amount of multi-tasking they are expected to do behind the wheel.
“We have rookie officers here today, that are still in training,” Wilkins said. “When they get out of training they’re going to be given their patrol car with cameras, radars, computers, and no one has actually took them out through any kind of course to operate that equipment.”
The drive through alleyways created by orange safety cones followed a four-hour classroom session, during which officers were shown slides filled with distracted-driving statistics and watched footage from a patrol car that showed an officer’s involvement in a deadly accident that Wilkins said was caused by distracted driving.
Officers were required to travel between 25 and 35 mph around the course while typing responses to questions posed by an instructor in the passenger seat. While they were texting, the officers were forced to make split-second steering decisions based on directions of the instructors.
Wilkins said that texting while driving is equivalent to being blind behind the wheel.
“It takes 4 seconds to glance down and read a message on your cell phone,” he said. “At a speed of 55 mph, you’ve traveled 100 yards, basically a football field. So that’s the equivalent of driving a football field blindfolded because you’re not looking at the road.”
Text-messaging increases the odds of an accident by 23 times, according to distraction.gov, a website devoted to promoting awareness about distracted driving.
The site defines distracted driving as not only texting, but also eating, grooming yourself, using a navigation system or adjusting the volume knob on the stereo. Eighteen percent of injury crashes in 2010 were reported as distraction-affected crashes, according to the site.
In 2010, 3,092 people in the United States were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver and an additional 416,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the site.
Mike Humphrey, also a training coordinator with RCC’s Law Enforcement program, said texting and driving has “become an epidemic.”
“A lot of the public doesn’t understand how far they’re traveling during those four seconds they’re distracted,” he said.
Wilkins said he hopes the program will be adopted at other law enforcement training schools across the state.
“I’m hoping that this helps all these guys live,” he said.