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When J.E.B. Stuart High School Driver’s Education teacher Donald Balsavich was 14 years old, his uncle was killed by a drunken driver.

“I have only ever seen my father cry once in my life, and that was the day his brother was buried,” he said. “The guy who did it got nine months in jail and then was set free, but it continues to affect my family, and it will for the rest of all our lives.”

Balsavich said that unfortunate event heavily influenced him to go into education, and to teach driver safety.

On Tuesday, he was happy to help host the AT&T DRIVE SMART Virginia Challenge, in which teens were able to use a simulator to show another potentially fatal issue: the dangers of distracted driving.

“Texting and driving is killing a lot of people,” Balsavich told students.

During the AT&T-sponsored event, students had the opportunity to safely simulate texting while driving, exposing them to the potentially fatal dangers of their actions.

The simulator, currently touring through Virginia, is a computerized system used within a real car attached with sensors, making the steering wheel and pedals operable for the simulation. Through a head-mounted display, students see a fully rendered virtual driving reality. Through the simulator’s software, teens are able to re-create real-life driving scenarios including pedestrians crossing the street, red lights and cars changing lanes on the road. At the conclusion of each simulation, students then view a scorecard showing their performance, further emphasizing the dangers of texting and driving.

“I crashed into the back of a bus within two minutes the first time I tried it,” Balsavich said. “It really did a good job of showing you just how quickly and suddenly that can happen.”

According to a 2012 study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, of all cell phone-related tasks — including talking, dialing or reaching for the phone — texting while driving is the most dangerous. The study also reports that teen drivers are four times more likely than adults to get into car crashes or near-crash events directly related to talking on a cell phone or texting, and that for every six seconds of drive time, a driver sending or receiving a text message spends 4.6 of those seconds with their eyes off the road.

“Teens have such little experience driving,” said Janet Brooking, executive director of DRIVE SMART Virginia. “This simulation is extremely valuable because it affords the opportunity to work directly with new drivers before they develop dangerous habits like actually texting and driving. That’s critical in keeping teens safe and improving the safety of Virginia’s roadways.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, automobile accidents are the number one killer of American teens, and their first year on the road as a new driver is the most dangerous. National survey results recently released by a Harris Interactive poll show that teen peer pressure actually can be a positive influence when it comes to texting while driving.

According to the Harris poll, while a passenger in a car, nearly four in five teens (78 percent) said they spoke up and pointed out a fellow teen driver’s distracted behavior when they saw it.

Once raising the issue, 84 percent said the teen driver listened to his or her peers and stopped texting while driving. However, the recent poll also shows that teen attitudes concerning texting while driving may be, “Do as I say — not as I do.” In the same study, of the nearly one in five teens (16 percent) who did not point out the distracted behavior, almost half (48 percent) said they felt the driver could handle the distraction, so they did not speak up. The survey also indicated that although the majority of teens tell others not to text and drive, about a third still engage in the behavior themselves. In the survey, 34 percent indicated they had engaged in texting while driving.

“I think distracted driving, and especially texting, is the most important issue that can be addressed at the high school level,” Balsavich said. “It is a very real epidemic that is killing people each and every day.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com