Shaina Harlow has only two memories from that frightful night. She still visualizes her husband being catapulted through the windshield of their car. And she remembers seeing the drunken driver who hit their vehicle stumbling aimlessly around the crash scene.
Luckily, this was only a staged accident.
Harlow, like hundreds of other high school students, was a willful participant in her high school's biennial rendition of a fake car crash. In spite of the fake nature of the crash, she remembers how the thought that such an accident could happen sent chills up and down her spine.
Scenes like the one Harlow experienced are played out across the country at high schools each year, usually around prom time. These programs carry such names as Project Crash or Shattered Dreams. In each case, schools and emergency services workers cooperate in an effort to hammer home to teenagers that drinking alcohol and getting behind the wheel of a car is a deadly combination.
In many of those crash reenactments, the images closely match a real drunken driving incident. Fake intestines ooze out of a student's stomach as blood trickles down another victim's face. One program takes the accident scene a step further: a memorial service is held, providing the opportunity for young people to share their feelings of loss and guilt about those left behind.
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Harlow, a recent graduate of Keene (New Hampshire) High School, thought in the days leading up to the reenactment that she would simply be acting. "I had no clue how much of an effect it was going to have on me," she told Education World. "From all the meetings we had and even the 'dry run-through' we did the day before the actual crash, I wasn't prepared at all for what I was going to see and how I was going to react."
On the day of the simulation, the Keene students were led to the staged accident scene, which was covered by tarps on the school grounds. Once the tarps were removed, the teens' emotions ran wild.
"From the second they took the tarps off the cars, those bodies were real. There was no acting, which I originally thought I was going to have to do," Harlow said.
Playing a pregnant woman enthralled by the deep emotions of a traumatic car accident, Harlow looked at the hood of her car and was dumbstruck by the sight of her motionless "husband." The scene was so real that she hardly found herself pretending.
"Seeing Matt, my husband, in the condition he was, was like he was really my husband, and I felt what it was like to lose him," Harlow said. "I had to try my hardest not to run over to [my friends] to make sure they were really OK. I had to listen to my friends screaming in agony, see them dead and bleeding on the hood of a car, and see them dead under white sheets. I felt real hatred toward Greg, the drunken driver, for causing all of this," she added.
Fire engines, ambulances, and police cars -- and, ultimately, a hearse -- streamed onto the scene of the accident, carting patients away -- except for the drunken driver, who was taken away in the police car to face charges of vehicular homicide.
"This is probably one of the best things I have ever been involved with, if not the best," said Harlow of her experience. "To look out into the crowd and see all the faces of the kids I go to school with every day speechless, mouths wide open, tears flowing down their faces uncontrollably -- it made me realize that this is probably one of the best things we will ever have witnessed, because personally I think it scared the hell out of us, even the 'tough guys,'" Harlow said.
"The rest of the day we were like zombies. We couldn't ever imagine that really happening to us, to our friends," she added. "It's a stupid mistake that no one should make."
For Keene High School guidance counselor Charlie Hansel, the scene is too familiar. He was struck head-on in 1986 by a drunken driver who was driving the wrong way on a Cincinnati highway. He broke every bone in his feet, and many in his lower legs were shattered. He endured about ten operations and numerous hours of rehabilitation before he could walk again.
Hansel said Project Crash was introduced to Keene students five years ago, borne out of a health study by a student. The event is held every other year for the junior and senior classes.
"It is a very graphic simulation of a drunken driving accident. It is incredibly realistic," Hansel said.
One of the most effective parts of the simulation, Hansel added, is one of the last activities, in which students and parents reveal their feelings and experiences to the crowd. "Many of the students are crying as they speak," said Hansel. "We hope the message is one that will affect them for the remainder of their lives."
At Warren High School in Downey, California, the staff has attacked the problem of drunken driving from many angles. The 3,000-student school runs a two-day event that offers teens a glimpse of the impact of a drunken driving accident from everybody's perspective -- including those left behind by the fatal accident.
Every 15 minutes during those school days, a gong sounds over the intercom, signifying that another person has died in an alcohol-related accident. A Grim Reaper appears at classroom doors to take away a student. That student becomes one of the "living dead." A uniformed officer and a counselor enter the classroom and read the student's obituary to those remaining in class. The obituary is posted in the classroom for the remainder of the school year. Simultaneously, an officer-chaplain gives the parents of each living dead student their child's death notification. Throughout the day, members of the living dead place their tombstones in a temporary cemetery on the school campus so friends and classmates can mourn their loss.
The Every 15 Minutes program got its name from the statistic from the early 1990s that every 15 minutes, someone in the United States died in an alcohol-related traffic collision. However, with new laws, stricter enforcement, the active efforts of such grassroots organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Destructive Decisions, and accident-simulation programs such as these, the death rate has dropped to one every 30 minutes -- a figure that continues to be unacceptable, said Carl DeWing, an information officer at the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC).
School officials understand that an event such as this can be traumatic, so counselors watch for students who appear upset, said Warren High School's principal, Earl Haugen.
"This program was borne out of a genuine concern for the health and safety of young people," Haugen said. The program was not enacted because a student died from an alcohol-related accident; it is a proactive way to prevent such an incident, he told Education World.
Assistant Principal Phil Davis found this program through ABC. It has been used at many high schools across the state. Davis said in his 20 years of teaching and being an administrator, he has never seen a more meaningful experience than the Every 15 Minutes program. "To see the way the students and parents approached this event brought a huge amount of pride to my heart," he said.
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The number of Every 15 Minutes Programs around the country continues to grow. The State of Texas has a similar program called Shattered Dreams. New York, Massachusetts, and Kansas have conducted other programs.
"The success of the program is based on several things," ABC's Carl DeWing told Education World.
The two-day event made a strong impression on many students at Warren High School.
"I cried a lot. It really made me think about life in general and about drinking and driving," said Tiffany F.
"I felt that it changed the minds of a lot of students and probably saved some lives," said Lonna D.
"I remember during the assembly there wasn't one dry eye. Seeing some of my close friends dead made me think that this does happen and this is reality," said Danielle S. "After seeing this, I hope no one from Warren High School decides to drink and drive, because the devastating emotions of this realistic program were really hard and painful."
"My best friend was in it, and at the assembly after it was all over, I ran to her and gave her the biggest hug ever. Both of us were in tears, crying and crying. During the assembly, I looked around, and almost everyone was crying. It was really sad to think that this happens every day to people all over," said Melissa R.
Parents were equally as affected.
"I am surprised by the feelings of regret and responsibility I felt about the event," said Michael C. "Knowing how this could actually happen, it is very sobering. I've just heard my son's obituary read in class. The price is just too much for anyone to pay."
"It was one of the most powerful teaching experiences I have ever witnessed. As a member of the community, I cannot stress enough the feeling of synergy I felt at the memorial [service]," said Laurie Mae I.
Events such as these appear to be working. MADD displays studies showing the number of alcohol-related accidents among teenagers declining in the past decade -- and these programs could be a reason. In fatal crashes, the percentage of drivers who were intoxicated decreased from 25 percent in 1988 to 18 percent ten years later, according to MADD.
"While this program is an eye-opener for many high school students, MADD believes that in order to effectively enact change in underage drinking-and-driving patterns, young people must be actively involved in the solution process. That is why MADD's current youth programs and initiatives aim to do just that," said Millie I. Webb, MADD national president.
Donna McBride, director of field services for Students Against Driving Drunk National agrees about the importance of these events. "What makes the mock crash equally important is the fact that, most of the time, students from that particular school are used in the scene as the victim or drunken driver. By doing so, it often brings home the fact that it can 'happen to me,'" she told Education World.
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