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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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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.