The Magazine

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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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.