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Coker Law Sponsors Simulator At Wolfson HS After Loss Of Driver's Ed Program

9th grader Dionte Hill, 14, driving Wolfson High School's new Apex Virtual Vehicle.
Brendan Rivers
/
WJCT News
9th grader Dionte Hill, 14, driving Wolfson High School's new Apex Virtual Vehicle.

October 21 - 27 is National Teen Driver Safety Week and in recognition Coker Law has partnered with Samuel W. Wolfson High School and Apex Resource Center to provide the school with a driving simulator, known as the Apex Virtual Vehicle.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), six teens between the ages of 16 and 19 die every day due to motor vehicle injuries and hundreds of thousands are treated in emergency departments each year for injuries sustained in motor vehicle accidents. Research shows that immaturity and inexperience are the primary factors that lead to high-risk behavior behind the wheel.

The Apex Virtual Vehicle donated to Jacksonville’s Samuel W. Wolfson High School will be the only source of driver’s education available to students during normal class room hours - and it’s being provided at no charge to them, the school or the school district thanks to Coker Law’s Safer Streets Through Smarter Drivers campaign. The campaign will target 125 ninth-grade students at Wolfson who are turning 14 or 15 this school year.

Matthew Posgay, a partner at Coker Law, said Wolfson was selected because it no longer had a driver’s education class. “This school had to make an important decision about some budget issues and in-school driving classes weren’t able to be funded this year,” he said.

“Our business is based on people who have been permanently injured, mostly from motor vehicle crashes and tractor-trailer crashes,” Posgay said. “We really want to help the community by having safer drivers. And we thought, what a great opportunity for us to help students who haven’t actually gotten behind the wheel yet, driving on their own, to teach them safer driving techniques and smarter driving techniques so they won’t be a statistic, they won’t be an injured person. That they can actually drive safely and make sure that they’re OK and that the people around them are OK.”

“As we think about Duval County Public Schools positioning ourselves as providing community value and as a community asset, we know that Jacksonville, year-over-year, is in the top three of the Dangerous By Design report, as we look at pedestrian injuries and fatalities,” said Ashley Smith Juarez, Duval County School Board representative for District 3, which includes Wolfson. “So if we can, as Duval County Public Schools, better equip our students for those unpredictable situations that they’ll encounter as drivers around the city, then we can help contribute to making sure that Jacksonville falls off of that list and that our students are safer in cars as well as when they’re walking or on a bike.”

Trish Johnson, the founder of the Apex Resource Center and the designer of the Apex Virtual Vehicle, says her simulator is designed to do just that.

Trish Johnson with Wolfson High School's new Apex Virtual Vehicle.
Credit Brendan Rivers / WJCT News
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WJCT News
Trish Johnson with Wolfson High School's new Apex Virtual Vehicle.

Johnson has been involved in driver training for 25 years. Over that time she's trained about 13,000 drivers total, most of them novices.

She said roads are more congested than ever and roads and cars have become more complicated, but the approach to driver’s education hasn’t changed since the 60s. That approach might have been OK in the 60s, 70s and 80s, but “for today’s young people, it’s not working,” Johnson said.

“We’re up to almost 30 percent of high school seniors don’t have a license,” she said. “In many cases it’s just because they’re overwhelmed. They just don’t feel like they’re ready. They’re not comfortable to go out driving. So I built the virtual vehicle to kind of bridge or overcome that gap, if you will, between a class or an online course and getting out on Butler Boulevard, which for many of them is just, again, way too intense.”

Johnson said her virtual vehicle is extremely realistic because of the scenarios it puts drivers through.

“It doesn’t drive like a car because it’s electronic, it’s not mechanical,” she said. “However, it’s fascinating to watch students drive it. Parents will tell me whatever they tend to do in the simulator is exactly what they do when they’re out in their car on the road. So in that respect I think it’s very realistic. And we can practice the areas that they’re weak without any threat. There’s no harm. And the learning environment is much more relaxed, so it helps them improve.”

Ninth grader Dionte Hill, 14, is one of the Wolfson students learning to drive in Johnson’s virtual vehicle.

Hill’s been learning on it for a few weeks. He said the hardest part is doing right turns. “They’re just very hard to do because you’re so used to sitting on the right side so when you’re doing right turns they’re so sharp. It’s just really hard to do,” he said.

Dionte Hill driving the Apex Virtual Vehicle.
Credit Brendan Rivers / WJCT News
/
WJCT News
Dionte Hill driving the Apex Virtual Vehicle.

The easiest part? “Left turns,” Hill said, laughing. “Or going straight. Both are really easy because you have to just keep it steady. Left turns you can make a long turn because you’re cutting lanes.”

But Hill is still in the early stages of learning. Up to this point he’s only been controlling the steering wheel.

“I haven’t gotten to the pedals,” Hill said. “I’m still learning how to completely steer. And then once I get the steering down I’m going to learn how to use the pedals and start doing that and then go back, if I need to, and learn some things that I’m messing up on.”

Johnson built her first Apex Virtual Vehicle in 2014. The prototype ended up costing well over $125,000 by the time everything was designed and built. But since then she’s found ways to save. Now they cost between $15,000 and $20,000 dollars to build, not including training costs.

Johnson said her goal is to make the virtual vehicle mostly self administered so students can use it on their own time and have the virtual instructor guide them through everything. She can personalize the program to make it feel like the students are driving where they live.

“So as we start working with more students here at Wolfson, we can build Jacksonville-type roads and intersections,” she said. “And the virtual instructor can be coded to where she’s giving the feedback that they need. So it’s a lot like what we have now with GPS.”

As of the writing of this story, Apex has three virtual vehicles in circulation, including the one at Wolfson High School. One is in Johnson’s office at Apex Resource Center in Jacksonville and the other is at a car dealership in Atlanta.

In addition to her background in education, Johnson used to be a race car driver. She started racing at eight-years-old with the goal of being the first woman to win the Indy 500.

She worked her way up that professional ladder until her early 20s when one of her crew members was killed in a highway crash after he hydroplaned.

“Because of what I had learned as a race driver, I know what to do if a car hydroplanes, but I knew he didn’t know, and that bothered me,” she said. “So I decided to try to do something about that and spare families from going through what I saw his family [go through]. So I, at that point, retired from racing and focused, again, all of my efforts on driver training.”

Johnson said she built and designed the Apex Virtual Vehicle with that crew member in mind. To prevent other tragedies on the road, Johnson’s virtual vehicle can simulate fog, rain, night, snow, ice and even the glare of the Florida sun.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.