Oct. 26, 2018 - Wolfson High School ninth-grader Teague Helton was cautious as he gently merged onto the highway.
With his eyes on the road as a tractor-trailer roared passed, the 14-year-old took a deep breath before getting into the right lane and pressing his foot slowly on the gas.
After a tense ride at 40 miles an hour -- avoiding cars whipping past him -- Helton exited the highway and...got up from the seat of the virtual vehicle where several of his classmates were waiting for their turn.
Helton is one of hundreds of Wolfson ninth-graders who will receive hands-on, virtual reality-based driver's education this year thanks to the donation of the Apex Virtual Vehicle from local law firm, Coker Law.
The technology simulates multiple weather conditions like rain, fog, ice and snow as well as challenging driving scenarios including tailgating, cars pulling out abruptly, ringing cell phones, and even pedestrians running into the road.
"This is not like a video game," Helton said. "It feels like the real thing."
According to Coker Law partner, Mattthew Posgay, that's the point.
"This helps takes the edge off," said Posgay, whose daughter attends Wolfson and is also learning to drive. "By going through and practicing these scenarios in a virtual setting, it helps the students gain skills and confidence behind the wheel."
The Apex Virtual Vehicle had its official debut on Thursday, Oct. 18. The event was a kick-off to National Teen Driver Safety Week, Oct. 21 - 27.
Both school district officials and representatives with Coker Law Firm were able to test out the vehicle and watch students as they navigated through virtual highways.
"This is a tremendous tool that helps start imprinting to students early about what they need to do to be safe on the road," said District 3 Board member Ashley Smith Juarez. "This gives them the acumen, the skill set and foundation to be confident drivers. We could not achieve comprehensive education for the whole child without community partners like Coker Law, and I cannot thank them enough."
The Apex Virtual Vehicle was created by race car driver-turned-educator, Trish Johnson, who has provided driver safety education to more than 12,000 drivers.
The first time the would-be drivers get into the simulator, they do one thing said Johnson.
That is because they tend to overreact at first. But they go through the scenarios over and over again. With practice, patience and guidance, they get better.
"It's incredible," said Johnson. "They get to learn from their experiences here so they don't do it on the road."
"This gives me a chance to learn how to drown out the distractions now," he said.
The Apex Virtual Vehicle will be available to ninth-grade students throughout the school year, said Principal Chris Begley. An instructor will provide course instruction and evaluation to students using the vehicle, and students will also be able to utilize a self-directed tutorial program through headsets