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Scared Sober

Another way to waste taxpayers' money and schoolchildren's time

Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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Every spring, just around prom time, dead bodies and crumpled cars litter America's suburban streets. Full-scale emergency response teams swarm around the accident sites, complete with helicopters, ambulances, and the occasional hearse. Police officers visit high school classrooms to break the news about classmates' lives tragically cut short by drunk drivers. Parents weep.

But if you happen upon any such scenes on the side of the road, it's pretty likely that everyone is faking it for the cameras. It's all part of the Every 15 Minutes program.

Since 1995, thousands of high school students across the country have been subjected to this educational opportunity, which operates on the "scared straight" principle of drunk driving prevention.

In most schools, Every 15 Minutes takes the form of a theatrical happening stretched out over two days. A student dressed as the Grim Reaper arrives and chooses a classmate for death. The Reaper then returns every 15 minutes to take another "life" in order to emphasize the (completely dubious) statistic from which the program takes its name--on average, they claim, someone is killed every 15 minutes in an alcohol-related accident. The "dead" students are decked out in white face makeup and black T-shirts (available in poly/cotton mix with a Grim Reaper logo for only $6.25 at every15minutes.com!). They walk among the living, but aren't allowed to talk to anyone for the rest of the day, which many high school students may actually consider a fate worse than death.

Dean Wilson, a community relations officer for the Bethlehem Township, Pennsylvania, police department has been helping bring Grim Reapers and bloody jalopies to schools nationwide since the mid-1990s. He now runs the national organization. The Every 15 Minutes website shows 119 schools officially registered with the national organization this spring, but that figure captures only a fraction of the students carted off to early graves, since many (perhaps most) schools put on knock-off versions without official sanction--and without paying Every 15 Minutes' fees. The program is not officially affiliated with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but MADD members frequently participate, offering testimonials and other conventional finger-wagging support services. Police involved with the widely popular, questionably effective anti-drug education program D.A.R.E. often organize Every 15 Minutes events in their districts--Officer Wilson, for instance, is also Bethlehem's D.A.R.E. officer. And who pays for all this bounty? Why, taxpayers, of course, primarily via small grants from the would-be reformers at state and local highway departments, offices of public safety, fire departments, and city councils.

This spring at El Camino High School in Ocean-side, California, the program took a new tack. The tragicomical Grim Reaper was tossed out, and the accident victims simply failed to turn up at their homerooms one Monday morning. Police officers showed up in 20 classrooms, placed red roses on missing students' chairs, and announced the deaths of a popular athlete and other Big Men (and women) on campus. The student body wasn't clued in to the fact that their "dead" classmates were really just holed up in a seminar room, trying out beer-goggling simulations and writing letters to their parents full of fake self-flagellation for fake drinking and driving. Many students got understandably upset.

Word spread pretty fast, thanks to the contemporary form of note passing: text messaging. Some of the teachers had to calm hysterical students with the truth--their classmates were alive and well--but a significant portion of the student body didn't find out the facts until an assembly was called and the traffic accident was "reenacted." Needless to say, many were not amused.

The "reenactment" is a standard part of the program, and it is often supplemented with a video the following day showing the fictional events leading up to the crash, as well as the medical and emotional aftermath. Some of the videos are professional productions, but often they are the work of students, which lands them straight on YouTube.

This means that not only are suburban streets knee-deep in fake gore, the online video-sharing site is thick with faux corpses, too. The musical scores tend to maudlin alternative rock, and the students playing the stereotyped roles of Promising Young Athlete, Party Girl, and Honor Student show themselves willing and able to chew scenery. A quick YouTube search reveals videos from high schools in Pittsburgh, Sacramento, and even one from this year's El Camino program.

The Every 15 Minutes website offers an array of promotional products, most of which are graced with the image of a girl with her head in her hands. It's no accident that she's the mascot: The entire point of this exercise is to capitalize on the deep love of drama in the heart of every teenager. As a high school student when Kurt Cobain shot himself, I can tell you that the capacity for ostentatious mourning in the teenage soul knows almost no bounds. And what teenager hasn't longed to pull off a Tom Sawyer--hiding under the bed and listening to all of the people who had treated him badly fall all over themselves in an orgy of grief and recrimination, believing him dead in a tragic accident? It's no wonder that kids get enthusiastic about the Every 15 Minutes program while it's happening.

But there's an inherent problem with the fake drunk-driving accident staged by melodramatic do-gooder teens. Assuming that virtually all of the trusted authority figures in your life aren't lying to you about the deaths of your friends, if you have even the smallest degree of self-awareness, it's tough to take this kind of propaganda seriously. Especially when the class clown comes in decked out as the Grim Reaper and "kills" the girl everyone knows he has a crush on.

In Cathedral City, just a stone's throw from El Camino High, the "students were very somber, very respectful," Vice Principal Art Sanchez told the Desert Sun, a Palm Springs newspaper. But Veronica Cain, the substance abuse coordinator at the Ontario City Schools in Ohio, told the Mansfield News Journal she had to remind the "dead" students to "stay somber"--presumably in addition to reminding them to stay sober.

Valiant efforts by teachers and police aside, it seems that all the fake blood in the world wouldn't make much of a dent. A 2000 study that appeared in the American Journal of Health Studies concluded that the program lacked long-term effectiveness: "Data does not show a measurable improvement in self-reported behavior toward drinking and driving." A 2003 study out of California State University, Chico--the city where one of the first Every 15 Minutes programs in America was staged in 1996--also conceded that there were few long-term effects, but found one significant short-term impact: "Students participating in the program as the 'living dead' characters reported drinking less, being more likely to talk to their friends about drinking and driving, and being less likely to drive after drinking or ride with someone who had been drinking." In other words, the tiny subset of people who were most directly involved told researchers--who had no way to corroborate their claims--that immediately after the program they were slightly better behaved than before.

This jibes with the experience of Mike Thompson, who "died" 10 years ago at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland. "I think it did make an impression," he says. And then, after a pause, "At least, it did right afterward. It's hard to say how long these things work." Much of the day is lost in the mists of the past, but Thompson does recall one detail: The soundtrack of the crash video was Radiohead's "Karma Police." Now a schoolteacher himself, Thompson tells me that he would never do the Every 15 Minutes program with his students--but that's because he teaches in the Bronx, where no one drives.

The reason for upping the ante with programs like the one at El Camino is a feeling that the message is no longer getting through. "This younger generation is rejecting the message," said John F. Sullivan, the project coordinator of Erie County's Stop DWI program, to the Buffalo News. But Thompson thinks his generation wasn't especially somber, or sober, for that matter: He remembers kids joking around, trying to make the dead student laugh or talk, like tourists with the Buckingham Palace guards.

Part of the reason the message may be getting rejected is the program's ridiculous packaging. On the "Products" link of the Every 15 Minutes website, some of the items are tagged in all caps as being "A GREAT GIFT." For example, The Ethan Chronicles by Marsha A. Willis, a book in which a "Family's Greatest Tragedy Poignantly Addressed," is billed as "A GREAT GIFT FOR ANYONE WHO HAS LOST A CHILD--$14.95." And, if you are one of those people who has lost a child and receives the GREAT GIFT of this book, an "Every 15 Minutes" postcard ("great for Thank You cards, Invitations, etc.") might be just the thing for expressing your gratitude.

The 2003 Cal State Chico study concluded with the hopeful thought that "one of the goals of the program is to prevent alcohol related driving mishaps during prom and graduation months, so short term intervention may be successful." But the significant majority of alcohol-related deaths are caused by people in their 20s and 30s, so long-term effectiveness is probably the only way to make a real difference. Thompson, for instance, says a couple of the friends he went through the program with were involved in drunk-driving accidents in their 20s.

Missouri's Greene County DWI Task Force wanted data before sponsoring the program for the third time, and so came the 2000 study. Interestingly, the task force didn't decide to scrap the program even after a systematic look demonstrated that the whole thing was bunk--perhaps because a DWI Task Force without a task is like a monkey without a tail. Instead, they modified the program and started pushing for tougher legal sanctions for drunk drivers. According to the study's authors, "the consensus of the Greene County DWI Task Force was that the public discussion of the study results along with media attention for the 'Every 15 Minutes' program did increase public awareness of the teen DWI problem."

Not that this small awareness-raising benefit comes cheap. A version staged at Middlesex High School in New Jersey cost about $6,000, plus the time of 60 people from local law enforcement and rescue crews, including a state Medevac helicopter that landed on the football field to transport dying student Tiffany Thornton to the hospital, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. In Cathedral City, police helicopters flew overhead as the local high school enacted their own version of the Every 15 Minutes program, complete with real firefighters, an ambulance, and a hearse. No one mentions two lost days of actual academic instruction.

There are small grants available through the Every 15 Minutes Foundation for participating schools. With all that donated time and resources, what do the schools need money for? Why, for the "T-Shirts, Lanyards, Silicone Wristband, postcards, materials .  .  . and other items directly related to the operation and presentation of the Every 15 Minutes program." The grant application includes this stern reminder: "Items purchased with these funds shall not be used to generate any program income." All the items are available on the Every 15 Minutes website. (Embroidered Grim Reaper polo "fine-weaved twill with reinforced needlework around the neck" now on sale for $25!)

The dead students numbered 26 at El Camino High because hearing about a dead kid secondhand doesn't deliver the kind of dramatic scare that having a dead kid in your homeroom will. Had those 26 deaths been real, they would have constituted a full 1.6 percent of total drunk-driving deaths for the 16- to 20-year-old age group for the year. (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 1,648 drunk-driving deaths for that age group in 2006.)

But details like these don't matter when there are important lessons to be taught. The point isn't to provide accurate information, it's to scare the bejesus out of a bunch of impressionable kids. Even the name of the program reflects this ethos of being fast and loose with facts, figures, and teenagers' feelings. Using the most generous possible government figures, alcohol-related accidental deaths involving a vehicle have held steady at about 17,000 per year, or one death every 30 minutes, for the entire history of the program. And that figure includes accidents where blood alcohol levels were as low as .01, which is not even a ticketable offense in most states (1,500 of those deaths are also cases where the only person drunk at the scene was a bicyclist or pedestrian).

In fact, it's hard to imagine how kids could be more freaked out than they already are. Various public awareness campaigns have kids convinced that having sex even once without a condom is tantamount to a death sentence, and that a single joint will set you on a long, downward spiral of drug addiction and financial ruin. The University of Michigan's well-respected Monitoring the Future survey found that last year more than 18 percent of high school seniors believed "smoking marijuana once or twice" posed a "great risk" to their physical or perhaps mental health. Drinking a beer with dinner and then getting behind the wheel? Forget about it. It's almost inevitable that you will kill a promising young honor student (though, of course, the driver will live, with only a cinematic cut above the eyebrow and a lifetime of guilt and shame to bear).

"When someone says to me, 'Oh, my God, you're traumatizing my children,' I'm telling them, 'No, what I'm doing is waking them up,' " California Highway Patrol officer Eric Newbury, who orchestrates the program at his local high schools, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. But wide-awake students are already convinced they're living in a nightmarish world--they don't need to see a "fake arm lying in a pool of blood," like the one students at Cathedral City High School were treated to, in order to convince them that the world is a dangerous place. And while drunk driving is a serious problem, high school students aren't the worst offenders, not by a long shot. The reason fake high school drunk-driving accidents are necessary is that they're mercifully rare in reality--something teenagers know on a gut level, which gives them immunity against even the most overproduced propaganda.

So why keep at it? One might be forgiven for thinking that the police and teachers are a little too invested in continuing to traumatize their charges. "I want them to be an emotional wreck. I don't want them to have to live through this for real," says Newbury. El Camino's guidance counselor Lori Tauber echoes his sentiments: "They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized."

Katherine Mangu-Ward is associate editor of Reason magazine.