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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

'Drunk' Car Steers Kids to Sobriety

Safety: Moorpark teens drive vehicle designed to simulate driving under the influence of alcohol.

November 17, 1998|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — A quite shaken 17-year-old Yvonne Munoz screeched to a halt and stepped out of the car.

She had just mowed down two pedestrians at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, and there were three mangled traffic cones stuck to the bottom of her car.

Munoz is no boozer. She was just driving a drunk car.

As part of the SAFETY Fair in Ventura County, more than 5,000 students will get a chance to drive the Dodge Neon Simulated Drunk Driving Car over the next three days.

Organizers hope that a spin in the drunk car will teach students firsthand the perils of driving while intoxicated.

The car was developed in 1988. There are only three in the country.

The Simulator--as it is known--has made nearly 3,000 appearances in more than 200 cities, including visits to San Diego, Escondido and San Jose earlier this month.

This is the first time the vehicle has come to Ventura. High school students from every school district except Oxnard and Conejo will get the opportunity to drive drunk while sober.

The Neon looks normal from the outside, but the Chrysler Corp. has modified the car with a computer to delay the driver's steering and braking response time so that it corresponds to the slowed mental and physical reflexes of drunk drivers.

Each student will get a chance to drive the car through a 200-foot-long obstacle course, demarcated by chalk lines and orange traffic cones.

Like a video game come to life, the driver must navigate the figure-eight course without hitting any pylons.

Pop-up pedestrians are also planted in the driver's path. When the driver goes by one, a Neon employee activates the figure with a remote control, and the driver must try to stop before running it over.

When the student steps into the car, Kerry Dunaway asks the student's weight and enters it into the computer. The first time around the course the student gets to drive normally.

Then Dunaway punches in the alcohol level--in Munoz's case the equivalent of four drinks--and the car goes wild.

Munoz immediately veers out of the chalk lines, dragging several cones with her. The car spins out.

While she drives, Dunaway keeps up a constant patter.

"You like your neighbor?" he asks into a microphone that broadcasts out across the fairground. "Well, you just took out his mailbox."

Just as Munoz regains control the pedestrians dart into the crosswalk and she runs them down.

"Child killer!" yells the employee controlling the pedestrians from the center of the course.

*

The slight Munoz, who is a senior at Moorpark Community School, says she has never driven after drinking, but after this experience she won't even let a friend do it.

"That really scared me," she said. "It seemed like the car controlled me rather than me controlling the car."

Ramiro Gonzales, 17, was equally jarred by the experience.

"I killed a little kid," he said after his ride. "I killed him twice.

"It's tough," he added. "It's tough to drive, and he [Dunaway] said I just had a couple of drinks."

Organizers say the experience leaves a lasting impact on teens, who often don't consider risks the way adults do.

"I think the effectiveness is tremendous," said Julie Frey of Ventura County Public Health, who helped bring the car to Ventura. "If you have never driven drunk before it makes you think twice; you feel so out of control."

She said the lesson can be even more powerful for passengers than drivers.

The car costs $3,000 per day and can accommodate 30 student drivers and 60 passengers per hour.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Ventura County Schools Self-Funding Authority, the Rotary Club of Ventura and Amgen sponsored the local event.

To stress the seriousness of the problem, California Highway Patrol, fire and police officers and county supervisors, school officials and emergency medical service workers attended the kickoff Monday.

More than 6,258 people between the ages of 15 and 20 were killed in traffic crashes nationally in 1997, according to a representative of MADD's Ventura chapter.

According to the state Department of Justice and Rand California statistics, drunk-driving arrests in Ventura County declined by 50% between 1982 and 1996.

But emergency workers said they would like to see that number drop even lower.

Angelo Salvucci, director of Ventura County and Santa Barbara Emergency Medical Services, said that half the people involved in automobile crashes don't make it to the emergency room.

"There's only so much we can do," he said. "It's not like 'ER' where anyone who even comes in with a pulse ends up living. A lot of them die--or have permanent disabilities."

*

' That really scared me. It seemed like the car controlled me rather than me controlling the car.'

Yvonne Munoz

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