Drunk driving simulator makes dangers real for Airmen

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Statistics reveal more than 2 million people die each year as a result of drunk driving, A group dedicated to reducing that number visited Maxwell on Thursday to spread their message of how easy it is to prevent drunk driving, and quickly drinking can lead to loss of control.

The Save A Life Tour held morning and afternoon sessions for base members, employees and residents at Maxwell's Honor Guard hangar and provided a realistic simulation of what it is like to drive a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. The tour was sponsored by the 42nd Air Base Wing safety office and financed by the Air Force Safety Center.

Brian Beldyga, senior manager for Save A Life, said the program is managed by Kramer Entertainment, Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., and has three teams on the road that visit more than 250 locations annually. He said the loss of someone close to him due to a drunk driver influenced his decision to join the program, which began more than six years ago.

"It was a tragic moment that changed a life -- mine," Mr. Beldyga said. "I hope and pray every day that I affect people who have this problem with this program, but I can only try and do my best. Sadly, I have to say we're dealing with a 'binge society' that doesn't always listen."

The program was divided into an introductory and educational presentation by Mr. Beldyga, and an opportunity for those in attendance to 'drive' a realistic, multi-million dollar simulator that demonstrates what happens when people drive drunk. The simulator features three flat-panel displays that provide a 180-degree field of vision of the road. Instructors gradually increases the delay time between a driver's response to a scenario and the on-screen vehicle actually performing a task, such as turning, by introducing "alcohol factors" to the simulator's computer program. This replicates how alcohol slows down the driver's reaction time, and the results are all too apparent to drivers.

"This is a high impact alcohol awareness program that illustrates the dangers of such DUI-related problems as swerving on the road and tunnel vision," Mr. Beldyga said. "Say you develop tunnel vision, where your eyes and head stop moving. You have effectively turned yourself into a 2,000-pound bullet. I sarcastically remark to drivers, 'thank God alcohol gives you the upper hand,' in an effort to drive home the reality that it does just the opposite."

The first driver to try his luck with the simulator was Airman 1st Class Drew Martin of the 754th Electronic Systems Group at Gunter Annex. He said the simulator really impressed upon him not to drive drunk, as he ended up crashing into the rear of another vehicle.

"I thought I had control up to the point that I realized I didn't have control," he said. "I was plenty cautious before about not drinking and driving, but now I'm completely aware of the dangers."

Next up for the simulator was Staff Sgt. Dwain Hornesby of the 42nd Logistic Readiness Flight. He said he learned a lot from the simulator and recommends the program. After repeatedly swerving and over-compensating the vehicle, he hit a truck head-on.

"I really learned about the delay in reflexes alcohol causes when driving," the sergeant said. "You may think at first you are in control, but that's not so at all. For me, the simulator was very realistic, and I soon learned the more alcohol you have, the less control you will have behind the wheel. It was a very good learning experience."

Mr. Beldyga was pleased with the Maxwell-Gunter Airmen who attended the tour because they were very responsive and interested in learning. He thinks Save A Life does accomplish its goal, but drunk driving is practiced on such a massive scale in the United States, it is hard to accurately gage the effectiveness of the program.

"I hope drivers would see that if they can't do this sober with our help, they're not going to be able to do it drunk," he said.

Mr. Beldyga said, DUIs and arrests are up across the nation, and he thinks the problem could be stopped if harsher penalties were invoked.

"For example, in Guatemala you're shot for first offense DUI. So, guess who doesn't drive drunk," he said. "But frankly, it has become too big a cash-cow for the states, and maybe that has affected the severity of punishment. I mean, why not make the first offense a $60,000 fine."

Mr. Beldyga said many people don't comprehend the consequences of driving drunk. He said aside from the possibility of killing yourself or someone else, employers can't hire someone with a prior DUI because of insurance. Also, military members who are convicted of driving under the influence often receive dishonorable discharges, and that discharge follows them throughout their lives.

"Ultimately, each of us can help with this problem, and my best advice to everyone is be there for your friends, take the keys, and don't let drunk friends push you around when it comes to them driving," he said.

For more information about Save A Life, visit its Web site at www.savealifetour.net.