By Karen Ronney
On March 21 and 22, approximately 1,200 Patrick Henry juniors and seniors witnessed the Every 15 Minutes program on campus to create awareness about drinking and driving and the impact of alcohol-related traffic collisions.
The program was co-sponsored by California Highway Patrol and the California Office of Traffic Safety, along with local support.
“Every 15 Minutes was created in the 1990s to change the alarming statistic that someone in the United States dies or is seriously injured in an alcohol-related accident every 15 minutes,” said Joseph Amador, captain of the San Diego Fire Department. “Since its inception, drunk-driving awareness has improved that statistic to approximately every 52 minutes.
“A drunk-driving accident is no accident. You have a choice. Make a better one.”
Patrick Henry was one of 150 schools to receive this grant in California. The year-long set up secured support from multiple agencies including police, the fire department, paramedics, hospital, coroner, funeral home, court, lawyers, jail facilities, students, parents and school administrators. About two dozen students were selected to play the roles of teen drivers, passengers, witnesses and the “walking dead,” the latter representing people killed by drunk driving every 15 minutes. The entire event was filmed for next-day viewing.
On March 21, two previously crashed cars were set up in the school’s parking lot. Then the sound of a loud “car collision” was sent through the school’s PA system. Juniors and seniors assembled around the vehicles and watched the drama unfold. Four students “acted” injured or dead from the accident. The “drunk driver” was dazed behind the wheel, and his passenger was injured and unconscious. The other driver was trapped in her seat, and later discovered to be paralyzed. Her passenger was thrown through the windshield and “died” on impact. Ten “walking dead” students stood around the cars each holding gravestones with their names, birth and death dates.
Next, two student witnesses called 911 to trigger a whirlwind of activity. Police and the fire department arrived to assess the scene. A yellow tarp was placed over the “dead” student on top of the hood. The Jaws of Life were used to extract the injured passenger. An ambulance took two students to the hospital. The drunk driver went through field sobriety tests. He failed and was arrested in front of his peers.
Patrick Henry students returned to class while participants experienced real-life consequences. They visited the hospital, morgue, mortuary and the mock trial at the court house, where Superior Court Judge Robert Amador sentenced the driver to 26 years and four months in prison. Afterward, the group went to an overnight retreat in Pine Valley where they wrote letters to their parents: “Dear Mom and Dad, today I died and I never had the chance to tell you…” Parents of participants wrote similar letters to their children.
On March 22, a somber assembly was held in the gym, and a casket was placed next to the podium representing “death from drunk driving.” Results revealed the accident led to two deaths, one paralysis and a long prison sentence. Selected student participants and parents read their letters. Words of wisdom followed from police, a respiratory therapist, a judge and fire captain, as well as from those who have lost loved ones from drunk driving. The video was played capturing every detail from start to finish.
“There are two faces you don’t want to see, me and the police,” said Jeramiah Martinez, a respiratory therapist from Sharp Chula Vista Hospital, who volunteered his services. “This is your opportunity, don’t squander it. Go and do great things.”
—Karen Ronney is a San Diego-based freelance writer, accomplished tennis coach and player and mother of Patrick Henry student Julia Ronney.