Each time Renee Hunkins drives on U.S. Highway 10, she notices the crosses placed to the side of the highway.
She sees them throughout the area.
“These are people missing from our community,” said the Weyauwega-Fremont High School teacher.
In about 90 percent of the cases, their deaths were likely the result of distracted or impaired driving, she said.
“I know every day I see at least five or six people driving like this,” Hunkins told the high school’s junior class. “It’s illegal to drive and be on a cellphone in Waupaca County.”
Hunkins made her comments on Thursday, March 28.
On that day, a group of students from Pacelli High School, in Stevens Point, brought a simulator to W-F High School to give students an idea of what happens when a driver is distracted or impaired.
Hunkins became aware of the simulator several months ago, after seeing a television interview the group did.
The students mentioned they would present the simulator to area schools, and Hunkins contacted the principal at Pacelli High School to express interest in having the students visit W-F High School.
Courtney Kizewski, Sydney Otis, Katie Olson and Max Lundgren, all seniors at Pacelli High School, are those students, and they brought the simulator to W-F High School.
They explained how they came to raise money to buy the simulator.
The students are involved in Destination Imagination.
This year, teams were challenged to find a need in their community and address it, Kizewski said.
“We chose distracted and impairing driving,” Otis said.
The reason why they decided to focus on that topic was because a 19-year-old Pacelli alumni died last April 29 in a car accident. He had been drinking and driving, the students said.
In addition, they all knew students who sent text messages while they were driving.
“We went to local businesses and gave presentations. Our community was supportive of the project,” Olson said. “We ended up raising more than we needed, so we were able to also buy a projector and screen.”
Their goal was to raise $10,000 to purchase a simulator. In all, they raised a a total of $12,000.
“We’re still getting money, so we’re hoping to get a second simulator,” Otis said.
Lundgren said the simulator will be housed at Mid-State Technical College, in Wisconsin Rapids. “It will be used in their criminal justice program,” he said.
A protocol has been developed for those interested in obtaining the simulator from the college.
When the students were at Weyauwega-Fremont High School, it was their second visit to a school. They will also be taking the simulator to Tri County High School, in Plainfield.
At W-F High School, the program was held during the week prior to prom, which is Saturday, April 6.
Having information presented to the students close to prom is proven to have a larger impact than if it was presented several weeks earlier, Hunkins said.
“In my opinion, you can never tell them about these dangers too much. I think it is important for parents to sit down and discuss these things with their children often. Sometimes, they need to be reminded that they are not invincible and that accidents happen to people all of the time,” she said.
All of W-F High School’s students attended the program, and some of them went behind the wheel of the simulator.
In some cases, they were driving under the influence during their time on the simulator, while in other cases, they were sending and receiving text messages while on it.
“Did I make it?” high school junior Katie Ponto asked after driving right through a checkpoint when it was her turn to be the driver.
When the simulation was about driving under the influence, students saw a video which showed someone going through a sobriety field test, being arrested, going to jail and then being sentenced.
The video also showed the students how years after being arrested for drunken driving, a person’s driving record could come up during a job interview.
Texting while driving was also a topic.
In the few seconds it takes to read and answer a text message, a vehicle travels the equivalent of a football field, Hunkins said.
“That is way too much area to travel and not be aware of what is around you,” she said.
The March 28 program was sponsored by the high school’s Students Against Destructive Decisions group.
“We want students to know that there are many people in this building who care about them. Their safety matters to us. They matter to us. It only takes one second to become distracted and to be involved in an accident. Being distracted does not mean that you are only on your phone,” Hunkins said. “It could also mean you are distracted by your thoughts of plans that you have, a problem you are trying to solve, etc. When you are behind the wheel of a car, you are responsible for being 100 percent aware of what you are doing and what others are doing to have a safe experience.”
For the four seniors from Pacelli High School, being part of this project resulted in them changing their own driving habits.
“We all started making better decisions once we used it,” Kizewski said.
When Otis drives, her cellphone is now in the passenger seat of the car.
Olson puts her cellphone in the cupholder when she is driving.
If Lundgren is a passenger in a vehicle and the driver wants to send a text message, he now tells the person to stop or hand him the phone and tell him what to type.
The students know some of their peers are drinking alcohol and are making it known they can be called if someone has been drinking and needs a ride home.
Hunkins encourages everyone to remind the people in their lives they and their safety are important.
“Please turn off your cellphone or put it in the backseat or glovebox when you are driving, she said. “If you need to make a call or send a text, pull over, where it is safe to take care of your business.”