TAMPA — The engine of the silver Ford Focus starts to roar. Sickles High School student Brenna McTeer, 15, grips the wheel while the music is blaring. She fumbles with the wrapper on a fruit rollup.
The car gains speed and swerves. Something hits the bumper and rolls under the tires. McTeer tosses the fruit rollup into the back seat, She turns to assess the damage, and sees two green cones on the ground.
Luckily, the car is in an empty parking lot at Steinbrenner Field, instead of a major highway. And the collision is with a plastic cone, not a person. McTeer is driving a course designed to point out the dangers of distractions. Driver's education students from Leto, Wharton, Sickles, Lennard and Freedom high schools participated Thursday in Allstate's Action Against Distraction program.
Students were asked to navigate the cones in a succession of increasingly distracting situations. Among them: texting, eating, drinking, loud music and a car full of teenagers.
In McTeer's car are fellow Sickles students Nick Bertram, 15, who got his learner's permit on Monday, and Alfredo Pierdomo, 15, who got his permit only Wednesday.
Rob Lindsay, is in charge of the Action Against Distraction program. Each time a novice driver starts, he repeats High Aim Vision: "Do not look at the cones, look ahead into the future."
Kevin Bakewell is AAA's South Florida senior vice president. Bakewell says that statistics on crashes involving distracted drivers have been difficult to gauge because until a few years ago, it wasn't as much of a factor.
"I'd say that more businesspeople text and talk while driving than teens, so this is a really a universal problem. But teens are less experienced, so its more risky," said Bakewell.
Nick Bertram tries the course for his fourth time. He is confident. After all, he drove his mom's truck for one day after he got his permit. He pulls to the start. Lindsay leans his seat back. "GAS! GAS! HIGH AIM VISION!!!! GO!" he shouts.
Rapper Lil' Wayne is on the stereo, Bertram's peers dance and sing in the back seat, and a photographer snaps photos in the passenger seat. Bertram has to skip cones as a light flashes signaling the end of the course.
Just as he pulls away, Lindsay dumps water on his windshield.
He can't find the windshield wipers. "It's okay, I can see through it," Bertram says.
Bertram is supposed to text while driving, but he grips the phone so tightly that it turns off.
Just a few weeks ago, on Sept. 8, 19-year-old Todd Jordan was killed in Norwalk, Conn., in what appeared to be a texting-related crash. The teen received and read a text message at 9:47, only moments before he crashed into a utility pole.
Bertram stops the car and everyone heaves big sigh.
"That was so nerve racking," McTeer says, "After this, I think I'll be careful when driving for the rest of my life."