SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA, USA - OCTOBER 12, 2009 Photo illustration for texting and driving. (Photo by Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)
Richard McLoughlin admits he had no idea how difficult it would be to drive and talk on the phone at the same.
"I was trying to multi-task," he said. "I was going a lot slower."
With one hand on the wheel and a Blackberry pressed to his ear, McLoughlin was one of dozens of students who weaved their way through a series of cones in an empty parking lot at U.S. Cellular Field on Thursday afternoon.
The exercise was a coordinated effort between Ford’s Driving Skills for Life program and the Illinois Department of Transportation's Operation Safe Teen Driving Initiative. The kids won their way on to the intensive, hands-on course by designing safe driving programs for their classmates at schools across the state.
"I’ve raised two teen daughters and they won’t listen to me," said IDOT’s director of Driver Safety Mike Stout. "But they will listen to their friends."
He credits the program with cutting teen driving deaths in half over the last two years.
Behind the wheel, students learn how to handle a car skidding out of control, how to handle road hazards, and how to manage the space around their car. A new addition this year is a section on distracted driving.
"Since cell phones have become so popular, it has become a bigger problem year after year after year," said Illinois State Police Captain Dave Nanninga.
St. Viator junior Jacquelyn Catanese took the wheel of the Ford Explorer for two spins around the track. She says she didn’t realize the difference until she drove one lap with distractions and one lap without.
"It was a lot harder. I couldn’t even make the turns," she conceded.
McLoughlin says he knows it was wrong, but he admits to having texted while driving in the past.
"I’m a regular teenager," he said. "I want to stay in touch with my friends."
But when asked if seeing the difference distractions can make, he says he has changed his mind. A change, experts say, that could save his life.
Illinois became the 19th state earlier this year to make using the phone while driving a ticketable offense.