SANDY — Jordan District high schools are piloting a high-tech simulator and a psychology research-based drivers education curriculum aimed at helping teens make better choices behind the wheel of a car.

The research by a Kansas State University professor, teamed with Utah-based DriveSafety, so far looks a promising way to curb thousands of deaths and some $40 billion in costs linked to crashes involving teenage drivers each year, officials said.

"We're maintaining a consistent driver's education program, but teen death rates continue to accelerate," said area executive director Craig Stark of Jordan District, selected for the pilot because of size and progressive nature. "We think this has the potential of saving lives."

Automobile crashes claim the lives of 8,000 15- to 20-year olds, making them the leading cause of death for teens, said Renee Slick, Kansas State University professor, psychologist, and principal project investigator. Sixteen-year-olds are 10 times more likely than adults to die in a car crash. Accidents for that age typically occur within six months of driving experience.

In Utah, 16-year-old drivers have been involved in 47,000 crashes in 10 years, according analyses by DriveSafety, which develops hi-fi research simulators often used in the auto industry.

But slick roads, excessive speed or alcohol have little to do with those collisions, DriveSafety CEO Bill Woahn said. "Really, it's an issue of immaturity, lack of experience and kids using poor judgment."

So how to you turn a teenager into a skilled driver without the liability of dangerous highway situations?

Technology, psychology, and solid training.

Slick, who works at Kansas State's STAR (Simulation Training and Assessment Research) Lab, funded by DriveSafety and the only lab in the country dedicated to studying the behavior of novice drivers, has developed a curriculum to help teens pinpoint personality traits, such as high-risk-taking and lack of respect for authority, that predispose them to crashes.

"We don't ask the teen to tell anyone, we just want them to think about it," Slick said.

The "See You In Six" (as in months, crash-free) training program then has students use a high-tech, ultra realistic driving simulator.

The up to $150,000 contraptions are the front seat of a real car that moves when drivers accelerate or brake and faces wrap-around video screens creating a 180-degree virtual world. Students navigate common accident-causing situations, such as rear-enders and distracted driving.

The system, supported by 22 computers, gathers student response data at 60 times per second. Results often shock, Slick said.

"It's one thing to say to a teen, 'You know, it would be really hard for you to do a left turn in oncoming traffic while you're on a cell phone talking to a friend. When you show them they can't (do it), that's compelling."

Students then will take advanced safety-training program, which can be tailored to their needs.

The program, which would augment current driver's education, has been piloted in Kansas and Manhattan. The Jordan pilot, the final in the project, will determine whether the program affects driving behaviors by tracking participants.

If it does, the team hopes to pick up financial backing so schools nationwide can use the program, Woahn said.

"I honestly think kids out here are going to benefit," Alta High driver's education teacher Morgan Brown said.


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com