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Students learn the dangers of driving drunk

Erica Dukek sits behind the wheel of the drunk-driving simulator Tuesday at Dakota County Technical College. She ended up crashing into a building. Emily Zimmer/Town Pages

Erica Dukek cut off a police car, ran up on a curb and then crashed into a building. As she rolled out of her seat she giggled and covered her eyes amazed at the damage she had just done.

Luckily her accident wasn't real. It was simulated, but the experience gave Dukek, a 20-year-old student at Dakota County Technical College, a good idea what its like to get behind the wheel intoxicated and what the ramifications of that decision could be.

"It showed me what could happen ... (let me) see the danger of drinking and driving," said Dukek.

Dukek said it was a lot harder than she thought it would be. That is the impression organizers hoped students would come away with.

The drunk driving simulator, brought to the campus by the Save a Life Tour, mimics driving a car at different levels of intoxication on city streets with variables including bad weather. The longer you drive without crashing or swerving like a madman, the harder it gets. Save A Life Tour manager Jeremiah Newson ran the simulator and acted as a passenger in the vehicle, providing a distraction to the drivers to add one more element of reality.

The Save a Life Tour set up the simulator and two big screens in college's commons area for most of the day Tuesday.

While the simulators let students experience impaired driving safely, the big screens told the harrowing stories of people who weren't so lucky. The images shown were shocking and the program didn't sugar coat the consequences. The DCTC Student Senate funded the visit.

As Dukek walked away from the simulator friends gave her some heat for how bad she'd done. And while participating was fun, the students seemed to walk away from the experience realizing the seriousness of it.

"It definitely makes you more aware," said Dan Mills, a 27-year-old DCTC student. Mills made it to the higher levels the simulator offers, but eventually he started swerving all over the road going five miles per hour.

Mills said he thought the experience was valuable, although he added that wished the simulator would have been a little more realistic. He said the simulator didn't drive like a real car and it would have been nice if things went blurry as the levels got harder.

The Save a Life Tour visited the DCTC campus several years ago. School counselor Nancy Bailey said it was brought back because they believe its an effective tool.

"It's surprising to students to understand sober what it's like to drive under the influence," said Bailey.

DCTC student Joyce Ludwig agrees. She was the victim of an accident with a drunk driver 30 years ago and said spreading awareness is important to stopping it.

Ludwig was a passenger on a bus when it was hit by an impaired driver in 1975. Over the years she has had two back surgeries to help repair the damage from the accident and could need a third.

"I live with the pain every day."

Ludwig, who admitted as a younger woman she also made the poor choice to get behind the wheel under the influence, said she was lucky to never have hurt anyone. She said younger people need to realize the consequences of their actions.

"Some people don't think it's a big deal but it is," said Ludwig.

Bailey said the school will hold a number of programs throughout the school year to educate students and staff on the effects of drug and alcohol abuse. She said they hope at the very least the programming will get students talking about the possibilities.

"People always think it happens to someone else but they're wrong," said Bailey.