As the driver checked his phone and nearly ran over a pack of pedestrians, Justin Valdes waved his hands and frantically looked up.
“Oh, man. That’s bad. Sorry!” he called to the digital pedestrians.
Valdes wiggled around in his vibrating seat, a clunky pair of virtual reality goggles and plush headphones perched on his head. He was testing out a virtual reality simulation of what it’s like to text and drive.
The simulation ends when the driver coasts through a light and is violently T-boned by a red car. Time grinds to a halt and shards of glass fly in slow motion over the driver.
The camera pans up, out of the car, which switches from a virtual reality scenario to actual footage of a gnarled car crash, complete with a police car’s flashing lights and ambulance.
“It’s like you’re going to heaven,” said Valdes, 28.
He waves goodbye as the video draws to a close.
The simulation was shown using oculus rift, a high-tech immersive virtual reality apparatus, and students at Florida International University lined up Thursday afternoon to give it a whirl.
The cardboard car, the flat-screen TVs flashing statistics about distracted driving — like 7 in 10 people use their smartphones while driving — and the simulator are all part of an AT&T advocacy campaign called It Can Wait.
It Can Wait representatives including C.J. Johnson travel the country, visiting high schools and college campuses and using the simulator to encourage students to avoid distracted driving.
“We want to make distracted driving as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving,” Johnson said.
Johnson and his employees handed out white cardboard boxes branded with their logo. The “Google Cardboard” unfolds to create a set of goggles with a notch for the user’s phone.
Download the It Can Wait app and the goggles become a makeshift virtual reality experience that covers the same ground as the FIU demonstration.
After he finished the simulation, Valdes, who studies recreational therapy at FIU, said he would do himself the favor of never texting and driving again.
“If you die, you don’t have a second chance,” he said. “Especially if you jeopardize the lives of others.”
Nicole Stone, an 18-year-old FIU English major, said the simulation is intense.
Even if the user doesn’t look down at the phone, they’re powerless to stop the driver from drifting across lanes, nearly colliding with other cars and pedestrians.
Stone said the simulation was a sobering look at the effects of texting and driving.
“It’s a very selfish thing to do,” she said.
Steve Augello agrees. His daughter Alessandra died in a car accident on Nov. 10, 2008. The driver who hit her while texting, a pregnant 19-year-old, also died.
Alessandra was two weeks away from starting her dream internship at the Tampa Bay Times.
The pain will never go away, he said, but he has dedicated his life to advocating against distracted driving, which includes showing up whenever there’s an It Can Wait event in South Florida.
“This is my crusade,” he said. “This is what I live for now.”
He also planned to speak with students in FIU’s franternity community. He said reliving his daughter’s death for every talk takes a heavy, emotional toll.
“I cry the whole way home,” Augello said.
He also advocates at the legislative level. He made an appearance in Tallahassee two years ago to help pass the current law that fines people who text while driving as a secondary offense. But he wants to see it become a primary offense.
It took 10 years to enact the seat belt law, he said, and that only affects the driver. Distracted driving affects everyone in the area, he said.
“The law is too slow,” Augello said. “It’s baby steps.”