Northern California high school and college students received some first-hand experience as to the dangers of distracted driving on Tuesday at the raceway in Sonoma.

Seven students participated in the hands-on driving event, which was designed to illustrate the dangers of distracted driving on area roadways. The raceway partnered with St. Joseph Health of Sonoma County, the Simraceway Performance Driving Center, Farmers Insurance and the California Highway Patrol on this first-time event.

“I can attest to the effect that the accidents caused by distracted driving have on patients and their families,” said Jan Gritsch, RN, Trauma Program Manager for Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, the regional level II trauma center owned and operated by St. Joseph Health. “If you choose to text and drive, it affects you and your family, but it is a drop in the pond that leaves a ripple effect all around you and anyone else involved in the accident.”

For the simulation, students completed a high-speed lane change drill, as well as a timed course during which they handled basic in-car distractions, including sending a one-word text message, adjusting the radio and opening the sunroof.  Instructors from the Simraceway Performance Driving Center, which is based at the raceway, oversaw and rode with all participants.

Students participating on Tuesday were from Sonoma State University, Marin Catholic High School (Kentfield); Mesa Verde High School (Citrus Heights). All were surprised by the significant impact of in-car distractions on their driving ability.

"When you look at the statistics and the amount of kids who get injured from texting and driving it really makes you realize how dangerous it is," said CJ Lyons, a junior at Marin Catholic. "I really learned a lot today."

“During the distracted-driving course, we saw the impact of in-car distractions, as it became more difficult for drivers to control the car and place it where they wanted to go,” said Jared Thompson, an instructor at the Simraceway Performance Driving Center. “We certainly saw a huge difference between the lap times and number of errors committed when drivers were distracted versus when they were focused on driving.”

Statistics reflect the need for continued focus on the dangers of distracted driving. In 2010, 3,092 people were killed, and an estimated additional 416,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver (according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). It is even more alarming for young drivers, as 11 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes in 2010 were reported as distracted at the time of the crash (NHTSA). Education and awareness are needed to combat these alarming statistics.

"What was good about today's event is that students were put in situations behind the wheel where they could see first-hand how dangerous distractions can be," said CHP Officer Garrett Ray. "Our hope is that they go back to school and tell their classmates about it. It's all about education, and events like this one today help us get voluntary compliance."

St. Joseph Health of Sonoma County, through Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, supplies the raceway with emergency physicians and nurses at its major events during the motor-racing season, including NASCAR, NHRA drag racing and INDYCAR. St. Joseph Health of Sonoma County and Santa Rosa Memorial, as a leader in injury prevention education in the North Bay, is a partner of the raceway in Sonoma.