St. James program for new drivers mimics what it's like to drive impaired

January 2023


Novice drivers are experiencing the perils of distracted and impaired driving — in a controlled setting — through a community benefit program of St. James Healthcare in Butte, Montana.

A driver navigates the Distracted Driver obstacle course, part of Distracted Driver training that is mandatory for students enrolled in driver's education in the Butte, Montana, school district. St. James Healthcare offers the Distracted Driver training as a community benefit.

The Butte School District mandates participation in the Distracted Driver training for students taking the district's driver education class. About 160 students took part in last year's training on June 30. About 1,100 students have completed the training since St. James started it.

During the three-hour session, participants learn that driving while distracted or impaired can be deadly, why it's important to give big rigs a lot of space and how to safely yield the right-of-way to emergency vehicles.

They navigate an obstacle course in a golf cart. On the first pass, the driver focuses on the course, the second time around the student taps out a text while driving, and on the final go-around, the driver peers through vision-distorting goggles that mimic the effects of inebriation. Staff clock students during each spin to show how distractions and inebriation slow response times.


Amber Henson is the trauma and disaster planning assistant at the hospital, which is part of Intermountain Healthcare's SCL Health. She says the course is a "great way to not only talk about the dangers of distracted driving," but also to demonstrate those hazards firsthand on a controlled course.

She says motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of trauma and death in Montana, and Butte has a high number of alcohol-related vehicular accidents.

St. James replicated the program from one offered by another SCL hospital, St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, Montana. St. James has offered it around midyear each year since 2015, except for two years due to COVID-19 disruption.

Members of St. James' trauma and patient registration teams as well as nurses from the intensive care unit and other associates volunteer to staff the sessions and present much of the training's content.

The driving course is set up on Butte High School's parking lot, with the golf carts, 500 traffic cones and other supplies loaned by local businesses. Henson says that the portion of the training when the students drive the golf carts wearing the Fatal Vision Alcohol Goggles is meant to show them how alcohol impairs acuity and presents a danger to drivers, passengers and others on the road.

Henson says when students are instructed to text a friend while driving the golf cart, they learn that cell phones draw their eyes and attention from the road.

Butte-area first responders staff stations near the driving course. Montana Highway Patrol officers take participants through the steps of sobriety testing. Members of the Butte Fire Department explain what to do when an emergency vehicle is approaching. An ambulance crew instructs the students on hands-on CPR. Representatives from the Montana Trucking Association invite students to sit in the cab of a big rig and describe to them what it's like to be on the road in these large vehicles. The students get an appreciation for the limited sightlines from the cab and the stopping speeds and distances required by semitrucks and trailers.

This year, Pat Goldhahn spoke to the participants about the 2016 death of his 15-year-old daughter Lauryn. She died in a car accident in Fairfield, Montana. She was not wearing a seatbelt. He described the pain and shock of her death. He also talked about the importance of organ donation.


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