Josh Vadnais, 17, cranks the steering wheel to the right as the road curves, but not quickly enough to avoid swerving onto the grass. A moment later, he slams on the brakes when he realizes that the stoplight ahead is red, then stops for the next green light.
The Woodbury teen is distracted by reading and replying to texts asking, "What's up, what d'ya want for dinner? Burgers or pizza?"
Luckily, Vadnais is at the wheel of a driving simulator, not a car.
Vadnais and his buddies were among the 160 teenagers, school advisers, resource officers and law enforcers from throughout Minnesota who attended a daylong Teen Safe Driving Summit on Thursday at the Rosemount Community Center.
Attendees heard personal stories of crashes -- sometimes fatal -- resulting from distracted or drunken driving. They learned ways to talk to other teens and preteens about driving dangers and risky behaviors.
Samantha Isenberg and Sarah Oster, both 16, of Eden Valley-Watkins High School and members of its Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) chapter, don't have their licenses yet.
Isenberg said she's "scared to drive" and isn't eager to get that coveted piece of plastic.
Oster can't wait. She says she won't text and take calls while driving. Her parents do, she said.
"I yell at them all the time," she said. "They just ignore me."
Max Donath, director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute at the University of Minnesota, demonstrated a smartphone application, still in prototype phase, that can monitor a teen's driving and send an automatic text message to the teen's parents if speeding or erratic driving doesn't stop.
The smartphone plugs into the car's computer system, and the app displays the vehicle's speed, sends all incoming calls to voice mail and disables all outgoing calls and texts except emergency calls. It won't let the vehicle shift out of park until seat belts are used. It can detect sudden acceleration and even tell if a driver has failed to stop for a stop sign. If the teen tries to turn off the phone to avoid surveillance by parents, the app will automatically text parents about that.
The app has been tested on 100 Washington County teenagers; sometime next year, the testing will be expanded to 300 teens statewide.
Donath also introduced an online video game developed by the institute. Players of "Distraction Dodger" drive a pizza delivery vehicle. To help build a successful pizza business, players are tempted to use a smartphone, social media and GPS while avoiding obstacles, traffic tickets, damage to the vehicle and personal danger. In each of the game's levels, the obstacles escalate and feedback is offered about driving performance and the level of distraction.
Summit participants didn't get a chance to play the game, but it is available at www.its.umn.edu/DistractionDodger.
The driving simulator, called One Simple Decision, however, proved very popular. Brought to the summit by Todd Emanuel from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, it allowed teens to "virtually" drive down city streets while texting on the computer monitor or on their own cellphones. When one teenager crashed into a virtual deer, police arrived and an ambulance soon followed. In another scenario, a police officer pulled over the driver, conducted sobriety tests, loaded the driver into the back of a squad car and took the driver to jail.
Goggles were also available that simulated three levels of blood-alcohol content -- 0.06, below the legal limit; 0.07, near the legal limit, and ones that Emanuel said simulated 1 1/2 to two times the legal limit. The goggles seemed to induce a hangover the minute they were put on, and Vadnais said they made it "harder to stop in time."
So does he text while driving?
"I have, but I normally don't," he said. "If I'm at a stoplight or a stop sign, I will."
Vadnais wore a yellow rubber ring around his thumb with the saying "TEXTING KILLS."
Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284