TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Northeastern State University administrators are doing more than just hoping students have a safe spring break next week; they are working to educate the community about possible hazards of partying too hard.

On Wednesday, as part of the Safe Spring Break Week, NSU hosted Unite's Arrive Alive Tour program, which used a virtual reality simulator to educate students on the dangers of impaired and distracted driving.

"Northeastern State is pleased to be able to help provide this experience as a part of our overall health and wellness efforts for our students. The Arrive Alive program provides the kind of learning opportunity that can truly change behavior regarding impaired or distracted driving," said Ben Hardcastle, NSU vice president for university relations.

"Drivers" used a virtual reality simulator for one or two minutes and could physically use the real steering wheel and gas and brakes pedals in a vehicle. Normally, the simulation is set up in the Unite Jeep, but due to the rain Wednesday morning, an NSU golf cart was used inside the University Center.

Participants could choose among three simulations: texting and driving, drunken driving, or drugged driving, which specifically mimicked the effects of marijuana.

"A majority of the people choose drinking over the others. They think that is more dangerous," said Mallory McKenzie of Unite.

NSU Junior Logan Bryant did the drunken driving simulator, and he didn't expect it to be as difficult as it was. He was also surprised he crashed as soon as he did.

"I think a lot of college students think they are invincible, and it's good to show them they're not," he said. "It's a fun experience necessary to teach college students."

Every two minutes, someone is injured in a drunken driving crash, and one person is killed every 50 minutes in the U.S. due to alcohol-related vehicle crashes, according to arrivealivetour.com.

Unite is a Michigan health and wellness organization that has been offering the driving simulations for 13 years. It began using the virtual reality headsets five years ago, and added a marijuana simulation a year ago.

"Our tour started in California, and overwhelmingly the students were choosing the THC simulator, even in high schools. It plays a part in our culture and how students are growing up," said McKenzie.

Malachi Stroud, NSU senior, tried the drugged-driving simulation. It features visual distractions and delayed reactions, and "high" drivers tend to drive more slowly, according to Kent Tieman, simulator operator.

Stroud, in fact, drove slower than the speed limit and he swerved over the lane lines.

"It took me a second to get use to the setup. It was fun," he said. "I've tried the drunk goggles, but not a simulator like this."

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana is the second most commonly used drug while driving. Alcohol is No. 1. With more states legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical use, there has been an increase in use among drivers. One in three college students has reported driving after using marijuana.

McKenzie said many students are surprised by their performance during the simulation.

"There are two types of people: the overconfident who blame others or items like signs, and the surprised who say, 'I will never do that again,'" she said.

Sara Swarer, coordinator of outreach and prevention for Student Health Services, helped organize the Safe Spring Break Week.

"The goal is to make them aware of alcohol, drugs and other things that can happen. We know they are going to party, so we want them to party smart," said Swarer. "We tried to have other events, but they were canceled due to rain. We were going to have a tailgate. Last night, we had a Greek Safe Spring Break event and we played jeopardy."

She said NSU has invited the Arrive Alive Tour several years, and she tried the simulator the previous year.

"The texting one is difficult," she said.

For the texting simulation, participants were asked to get out their cell phones and open an app into which they could type. They were then to put the phones on their laps and both hands on the steering wheel. During the simulation, one of the Unite people would ask them to type a question, such as, "What was the homework assignment?" or "What time does the movie start? Usually, at this point, the driver would begin to swerve or cross the lane lines.

Drivers are 23 times more likely to get into an accident while texting and driving due to inattentive blindness, which means they are not paying attention and fail to see items or stimuli in plain sight.

NSU senior Sara Payne opted to try the texting and driving simulation, even though she doesn't normally put herself in that position.

"It was difficult because it's different than driving a car. You can't feel it moving. I try not to text and drive. I know I'll probably do something horrible if I did," said Payne. "More people need to do this. It's especially important for teens who are just learning to drive. Texting is probably as dangerous as driving drunk."

Statistics provided by Unite include: one out of every four car accidents in the U.S. is caused by texting and driving; texting while driving makes a crash 23 times more likely; and texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than drinking and driving.

Afterward, "drive" participants were issued citations based on their performance.

"It's based on their drive and what happened, like speeding or swerving. The consequences vary by state," said McKenzie.

The pre-spring break event also included tables manned by Swarer and other NSU staff. Available were a prize wheel and information from Student Health Services, NSU Police Department, Help In Crisis, Oklahoma Highway Safety Office, and others. Visitors could spin the wheel for a chance at prizes such as a T-shirt, cup, pop socket, pen, or candy. They could also enter the raffles for one of the two "river ready" setups of a chair, cooler, waterproof box, and more.

Check it out

In April, NSU Student Health Services will host events and activities for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This will include a Cover the Cruiser event on April 3 and the month-long Breaking the Silence art display. Small events will happen in the UC every Tuesday and Thursday.

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