2010-05-27 / Features

Do Mock Accidents Help Prevent Prom-Time Crashes?

Melissa Brown knew her daughter Kelly was only acting her part in a gruesome play outside Bethlehem Catholic High School last week.

But that didn’t stop the mother of seven from sobbing very real tears over the prone, bloody body of her daughter, who was pretending to be the victim of a prom night drunken driving crash.

Scenes such as the one at Bethlehem Catholic are being replayed throughout the country at this time of year as schools, authorities and parents try to give teenage children one last reality check before prom night revelry.

Are the scared-straight messages of mock crashes paying off?

Evidence in the past few years suggests they are. Combined with tougher drunkendriving laws and enforcement, educational efforts appear to be helping to lower alcohol-related crashes involving young drivers. Across the United States, fatal accidents involving 16-to-20-year-old drivers are down, even as drunkendriving arrests hold steady nationwide and are on the rise in Pennsylvania.

But whether the lessons stick with most teens is doubtful.

The tragedy of prom season fatalities may generate unforgettable headlines, but records show the highest number of fatal accidents involving young drivers happen later in the year.

July was the deadliest month across the country for young drivers from 2004 through 2008, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show. In Pennsylvania, more young people died in crashes involving young drivers in October than in any other month.

However, alcohol was more likely to be a factor in fatal crashes for Pennsylvania teens in June and July. A significant drop-off in fatalities didn’t occur until November, the data show.

There’s no evidence teens’ attitudes are changed for the long term by mock crash programs, said James C. Fell, senior program director at the Alcohol, Policy and Safety Research Center in Calverton, Md.

The percentage of young drivers involved in fatal accidents in which alcohol was involved hasn’t changed despite the decrease in young driver fatal crashes, he said. Booze is involved around 30 percent of the time, the data show, “relatively similar to the overall driving population,” according to an NHTSA research paper.

“Mock crashes and emotional assemblies, I’m not against them,” said Fell, the father of three boys, including an 18-year-old. “They’re a temporary fix.”

Standing at the Bethlehem Catholic program, Bethlehem Police Capt. David Kravatz recalled one re-enactor a few years ago who was arrested for underage drinking shortly after participating in the play at another school.

But even if the crash scene lessons don’t last, they still can be valuable to teens – and may permanently change attitudes for some. The impact of seeing teens arrested, bloodied or dead, even though it’s scripted, leaves its mark on students and adults, program supporters say.

He said he is convinced the program has prevented tragedies because it helps create new lines of communication between teens and their parents and gets them to reveal their deepest feelings. “The impact and power when you do that,” said Wilson, a passionate supporter of the program, “is far more than just a mock crash scene at a school.”

Some research supports Wilson’s belief. One study of Every 15 Minutes suggested teens had maintained healthier views about avoiding alcohol seven months after the program. And since one of the program’s goals is preventing alcohol-related crashes during the prom and graduation seasons, “shortterm intervention may be successful,” said the study, reported in the Californian Journal of Health Promotion in 2003.

A study in the American Journal of Health Studies assessing “Shattered Dreams,” a program modeled on Every 15 Minutes, found it “reduced positive expectations toward drinking and driving.”

Of course, not all lessons are learned the first time. Davonne Lawson is a prime example of that.

Lawson attended the requisite drunken-driving assembly at his Harrisburg high school as a 19-year-old in 2007, but paid little attention. A speaker told the students of the fearsome consequences of drinking and driving, but Lawson said it had no impact on him. “I just looked at him like, ‘This would never be me,”‘ he said.

But later that year, Lawson lived the nightmare. He had been drinking with friends when he got behind the wheel of a car and sped into the opposing traffic lane, trying to pass a car ahead of him. Lawson drove the vehicle into the path of a motorcyclist, killing him.

He was sentenced – with the victim’s family’s consent – to three to seven years in jail, including work release. Lawson, who is still serving his sentence, says he has to avoid being around the “wrong crowd” with whom he used to socialize. “I know now where that life gets me,” said Lawson, now 22.

Now it’s Lawson who’s speaking to Harrisburg-area high school students about the dangers of drinking and driving. “What I’m trying to get people to know is you don’t have to go through anything tragic,” he said.

Fell said the key is tough laws and enforcement. “It’s the adults’ fault” that underage drinking and driving persists, he said.

In fact, Pennsylvania State Police said increased training and state Department of Transportation funding for enforcement helped drive down drunken-driving crashes involving drivers of all ages in 2009. Meanwhile, state police made a record 16,900 DUI arrests last year, an increase of 4 percent.

But the Bethlehem Catholic program included a survey that showed young and adult drivers still have a way to go in safer driving practices.

The survey, conducted by the Bethlehem Health Bureau outside the high school in the days before the mock crash, measured the easiest and surest automotive safety step – seat belt use.

It showed that 27 percent of drivers and passengers, adults included, were not wearing seat belts.

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