Staged Crash Scenes and Sober Grad Nights

June 19th, 2017 | by RON BELL

Staged Crash Scenes and Sober Grad Nights

How communities come together to make sure that teenagers stay safe during prom and graduation season

A fatal crash where nobody gets hurt

For the police and paramedics, the scene is all too familiar: two cars with shattered windshields and metal structures twisted and crushed almost beyond recognition; the heavy, nauseating smell of oil and gas; the warm, vaporous smoke coming out of the cars and shrouding the area in ominous fog; and, most disturbingly, the bodies. The bodies of young men and women, covered in blood, strewn chaotically on the road. The emergency medical team doing everything in their power to help everyone that can be helped, to save lives. It is clear from the beginning, however, that some of the teenagers will simply not make it. Soon, a family in the neighborhood will receive a knock on the door and a police officer with a serious face and a somber voice will deliver to the unsuspecting parents the soul-crushing news: “There has been an accident involving a drunk driver and your child has been killed”.

Except that this time, no one really dies. Although realistic down to the most minuscule of details, the scene was only an elaborate production, scripted and staged for the purpose of raising awareness in high school students of the dangers of drinking and driving. Across the US, there are several programs where activists team up with school districts to reenact crash scenes of fatal accidents involving a DUI driver – for example, Project Crash, Shattered Dreams, or Every 15 Minutes, to name just a few. Scenarios of such reenactments vary – sometimes, apart from the crash scene itself, there are fake obituaries written and read to the “killed” student’s classmates. Some schools even have memorial services held. Other versions of mock crashes engage the parents of students as well and include simulated visits to the morgue. The central piece, however, is always more or less the same. There is a crash scene staged, usually in the vicinity of the school, where pupils can see their friends in gory make-up, pretending to be heavily injured or dead, and emergency teams pretending to be rescuing them. Because a lot of work is put into the preparation of the reenactment and into ensuring everything looks as realistic as possible, the show usually has a very strong emotional impact on high school students.

Effort that is worth it

And this is precisely the goal the organizers of any such staged crash scene have – that it makes a powerful impression on pupils and that it successfully deters them from taking any unnecessary driving risks such as getting behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Adolfo Olivas, a tow truck driver that was engaged in a crash scene staged for the Carlsbad High School in Carlsbad, New Mexico, in May this year, commented: “I was glad we were able to help. If we can get one kid, that would be amazing”. Another school in New Mexico, the Santa Teresa High School, also staged a mock crash this year even though state funding for this kind of events was scrapped in 2016 and the money had to be raised through a grassroots fundraising effort. Toni Hernandez, who has overseen and organized accident reenactments for more than 10 consecutive years, said that she received letters of gratitude for the program from both students and parents, thanking her for possibly saving lives. Toni feel this shows that the impact mock crashes have on pupils is worth the effort and the money put into their preparation.

Scale of the problem

In fact, virtually every effort to raise awareness of the problem of DUI among teenagers and young adults can make a difference between life and death due to the sheer magnitude of the problem. In a national survey conducted in 2015 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20% of teens reported that they had taken a ride with a driver who had been drinking at some point in the last month, while 8% admitted to having driven while intoxicated themselves. CDC also points out that drivers aged 16-20 are “17 times more likely to die in a crash when they have a blood alcohol concentration of .08% than when they have not been drinking”. Thus, schools and communities who dedicate time and resources to informing teenagers about the risks of drinking and driving are to be commended – these efforts can truly save some young lives.

Sober grad nights – a solution better still?

Nevertheless, the practicality of DUI accident reenactments can be undermined by the fact that the impact it has on students’ attitudes and choices, although initially strong, can be short-lived. Thus, districts are sometimes encouraged by activist groups, such as Students Against Drunk Driving, to stage mock accidents right before the times when teenagers are most likely to be driving under influence, such as proms or graduation nights. It is estimated that about a third of all alcohol-related fatal motor vehicle accidents involving teenagers will take place during the prom and graduation season. To tackle this specific-events-related risk, some school communities go even one step further to ensure the safety of their pupils. How so? By hosting alcohol-free graduation events, or “sober grad nights”. These parties, often featuring a plethora of extravagant attractions, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, take months to plan and prepare, and long hours to set up. Although they do require considerable effort to arrange, they also ensure that students celebrate their graduation in a safe place and environment. These are usually lock-in events with pupils only being permitted to leave if their parent or guardian makes a call to the organizers with a specific request that their child be let go. A majority of the grads do choose to attend and stay though, mostly thanks to carefully planned, entertaining activities. For example, this year, one high school’s grad night included fanciful attractions such as water slides and a wave pool, indy cars, laser tag, miniature golf, a casino, and live entertainment. The school’s sober grad night information website states that traditionally over 80% of its students attend the event. This translates into about 550 pupils kept safe during what could otherwise easily turn into “one of the most dangerous times of a young person’s life”, as the website puts it. Certainly, when it comes to the life and health of our teenagers, these are numbers to be proud of.

Teenagers still at risk

This year’s prom and graduation season is, by now, largely over. However, the most dangerous time for teenagers and young adults to be on the road has, in fact, just started. It is estimated that during what has come to be called the “100 deadly days of summer” – a period starting on the Memorial Day and ending on the Labor Day – about 10 teenagers a day will lose their lives in motor vehicle accidents. Many of those accidents will involve a DUI driver. Parents can do much to help their kids stay safe during this particularly dangerous season. However, as both staged crash events and sober grad nights show, the best results are achieved when parents and the whole community come together in efforts to raise awareness and ensure that young people always make safe responsible choices. After all, roads that are safer for teenage drivers are at the same time safer for everybody.

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