980 CJME
September 12, 2019

MADD Canada is taking its latest impaired driving initiative on the road.

SmartWheels, an RV equipped with virtual reality technology that creates drunk and high driving simulations, first launched in Ontario in 2017.

On Thursday, in collaboration with SGI and the province, SmartWheels kicked off its tour across Saskatchewan with a stop at St. Gabriel Elementary School in Regina.

After throwing on a pair of virtual reality goggles, Grade 6 students like Willa McConnachie unlocked some choose your own adventure decision-making scenarios that simulate how it looks and feels to drive while impaired.

“It was pretty scary because your vision got really blurry,” the 11-year-old described after the demonstration.

Despite being too young to get her licence, McConnachie said she and her classmates learned another more relatable lesson: Never catch a ride with an impaired driver.

“If someone (impaired) asks you, ‘Hey, do you want to get into the car?’ and you know they’ve had a couple drinks or something, you say, ‘No, thank you,’ and you call your parents,” she explained.

It’s those kinds of lessons MADD Canada CEO Andrew Murie hopes resonate with kids long after they take off the virtual reality goggles.

“I really hope that this generation … they start to challenge their peers when they become teenagers and become legal age to drive,” he said. “(I hope) that these things that we’re engraining today just don’t go away tomorrow and that it becomes part of their culture.”

Murie noted a way to begin to change a generation’s impaired driving culture is to teach them, at a younger age, about the impact it can have. That’s why the SmartWheels initiative targets kids in grades 4 to 6.

“By Grade 7 we start to see considerable use with cannabis and alcohol experimentation, and so — if we can get them before that starts — that’s the perfect age,” Murie explained, adding MADD has a separate impaired driving prevention program for students in grades 7 to 12.

Minister Responsible for SGI Joe Hargrave agreed, saying it’s never too early to teach young people in Saskatchewan about the consequences of impaired driving, considering the province’s problem with it.

Preliminary data from SGI shows, in 2018, 42 people died and 355 were injured in impaired driving collisions.

“We have such a terrible record of impaired driving … We’ve made some progress over the last couple of years — deaths dropped by 40 per cent — but we’re still way too high. One death is too many on our highways,” Hargrave said.

He noted the SmartWheels initiative is one way to help the younger generations change the culture around impaired driving in the province.

“If they get in the car with Mom and Dad — and Mom and Dad have been drinking and driving — these kids will be (saying), ‘Don’t do that,’ ” Hargrave explained.

The MADD Canada SmartWheels RV is set to visit more than 100 Saskatchewan elementary schools and reach roughly 9,000 students this school year.