Not dead yet

How do you get through to teens about the dangers of drunken driving?

A uniformed police officer arrived in several classrooms at El Camino High near San Diego to tell students a classmate had been killed in a drunken-driving accident.

About 10 a.m., students were called to the athletic stadium, where they learned that their classmates had not died. There, a group of seniors, police officers and firefighters staged a startlingly realistic alcohol-induced fatal car crash. The students who had purportedly died portrayed ghostly apparitions encircling the scene.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) came up with the hoax scenario to make students think about the risk of drunk driving.

“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,’ ” said (California Highway Patrol Officer Eric) Newbury, whose father was killed by a drunken driver.

. . . “I want them to be an emotional wreck. I don’t want them to have to live through this for real.”

Via Radley Balko’s MADDsteria at Hit & Run.

Does playing at tragedy — “ghostly apparitions” — persuade teens to change their behavior? I doubt it. It’s easy enough to find real victims of drunk driving — guilt-wracked drivers, scarred survivors, parents of victims — who can talk about the pain. Even that, won’t get through to everyone, but it will reach the reachable.

When my daughter found out her sixth-grade classmate had been killed (by an unlicensed driver), she was alone. I was at Back to School Night crying with the parents and teachers, who’d just found out. I came home. Allison was sobbing. The girl was in three of her classes. They’d been working on a project that day. She was an emotional wreck. Death is not something to play at.

About Joanne


  1. On the day my daughter’s senior picture was scheduled, one of her close friends was killed in an automobile accident. The girl was driving a pickup truck with no seatbelts. A drunk ran her off the road, and her truck hit a big tree. The impact opened the doors and sent her flying out. She landed in the grass and the truck fell on her.

    The makeup artist at the studio spent hours working on my daughter and her friends, but when I look at their senior pictures twelve years later, I can see the grief in their eyes.

    How can we tell our kids that they simply must be careful in all ways? I don’t know. Sometimes I believe that even the death of a close friend doesn’t really make the impact it should; it’s always someone else, not “me,” in their minds. This girl’s accident was played up, in the papers and elsewhere, as strictly a seatbelt issue, which it certainly was, but not much mention was made of the drunk who murdered her.

    Perhaps it might make a difference if we were allowed to be a little politically incorrect and “diminish the self-esteem” of the drunks who are responsible for these accidents, instead of making the victims seem somehow responsible.

  2. You don’t lie to kids about this. Ever. They won’t believe you again.

  3. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    I don’t think this is a good idea. Things like this should never be dramatized.

    Many years ago now…in 1992, I believe, and in the Dallas area IIRC), some kids in a school asked a school administrator some questions about the Kennedy assassination, and what that was like to expreience as a student at the time. So his bright idea was to get on the intercom and tell the school that Bush (41) was assassinated, just so they would get an idea of what that was like. I read about this in the papers not long afterwards. I have never thought doing things like that was ever a good idea, for the very basic reason Mike points out above, AND because there are just some things in this world that are never, ever to be taken lightly, not even for purposes of dramatization, no matter how noble the reasoning.

  4. Just to make this clear…Imagine you’re at work. Your boss comes in with the police and sadly announces that a co-worker has died, maybe a family member of one of the employees. Half an hour later after people have cried, sat in shock or been sick, he announces that it was just an exercise and nobody was dead.

    Adults get that THAT would be manipulative, sociopathic and utterly inexcusible.

    Somehow though, when it involves children, it’s a learning experience.

    I will not be supporting any MADD campaigns anymore.

  5. The real sad thing is that it’s probably these very same “responsible” people who rail against violent video games because they desensitize young people to violence.

  6. In college I had a roommate who’d been in multiple drunk driving accidents where he was at fault. His idiot parents took no action aside from shelling out the money to repair/replace his car and pay for any damages he caused. His girlfriend was seriously injured in one of his accidents and had to be hospitalized resulting in her parents forbidding her from dating him. He continued drinking and driving and she started sneaking around behind her parents backs so she could continue to go out with him when he did.

    As Friedrich von Schiller wrote, “Against stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain.” Kids that age think they’re going to live forever. Dying in a drunk driving accident is something that happens to other people, not to them. If, as in the case of my roommate, being in multiple drunk driving accidents doesn’t get the message through I don’t see how anything else is going to be more successful.

  7. Barry Garelick says:

    Kids that age think they’re going to live forever.

    I recall a visit that a police officer made to our driver training class. This was in mid-60’s. He cited a simple statistic; i.e., that 1/3 of the people in the class would be killed in a car accident. That could mean one of the two people sitting to either side of you, or it could mean you I know all of you are thinking ‘It doesn’t mean me’. ”

    This stuck with me for many years. Particularly when as I grew older I learned of friends who had been killed in auto accidents.

  8. SuperSub says:

    The only way to deal effectively with drunk drivers is to throw the book at them. Cars are just as, if not more, deadly than loaded guns when they’re in the hands of drunk drivers.
    I’ve lost friends due to drunk driving and seen drunk drivers come back again and again because its treated simply as a traffic infraction.
    That being said, I’m reminded of a funny line from House (paraphrased because I can’t remember it exactly)-
    “I used to drive home drunk, but some mothers got mad-d…”

  9. Mike is right. Lie to kids and they won’t take you seriously. We drum this into our children with the boy who cried wolf story–you’d think adults wouldn’t forget it. Barry, I also think that officer was mistaken if not lying. Maybe 1/3 would be in a car accident, but to say that 1/3 would die in a car accident is patently false.

    If you are honest with your children, let them actually experience the consequences of their actions growing up, and give them as much actual responsibility as they can handle, you’re likely to get great adults. Though not every kid turns out great even with the best parenting and we also need to recognize that kids have free will.

  10. While I totally disapprove of this re-enactment, the comments here clearly show that a well-placed lie can be an effective teaching tool.

    I’m referring to the “simple statistic” B.G. above heard in his class in the 1960s — “that 1/3 of the people in the class would be killed in a car accident.”

    For forty years now, he’s remembered it, it has been made even more powerful by his personal experience, and undoubtably it has made him a safer driver. Yet it’s utterly false!

    Admittedly, I’m working on modern statistics,

    and cars are a lot safer now than they were in the 1960s. But currently (1994-2006 stats), about 40 to 43 thousand people die (quite consistently) each year in automobile accidents, something less than 15 per 100,000 people. Even over a lifetime — even over 100 years — the chance of a single person dying when exposed to an annual 0.015%
    chance of being in a fatal accident — is less than 2%. It’s too high, for sure — but nowhere near one in three.

    We could increase a little by only looking at registered drivers — everyone in that class was presumably on their way to becoming a driver — but the annual figure there is 22 per 100,000, not the enormous increase you’d need to justify this figure (and my crude use of 100 years of exposure is even more of an overestimate).

  11. Sister Howitzer says:

    “He cited a simple statistic; i.e., that 1/3 of the people in the class would be killed in a car accident.”

    That officer was full of it. The earliest year I could find data for was 1966:
    50,894 fatalities
    196,560,000 US population
    25.89/100,000 fatality rate

    One year odds is the reciprocal: 196,560,000/50,894=3862.14, or about 1 chance in 3862 of dying in a car accident each year.

    To find lifetime odds, you divide the one year odds by life expectancy- which was approximately 70 in 1966: 3862/70=55.18. So in 1966 the lifetime odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident was about 1 in 55.
    That compares to a lifetime odds of 1 in 84 for the year 2004.

  12. I’m not sure that what’s being described here is the same as what I’ve seen done, but we’re had what are referred, I think, as Ghost Outs for the same reason done by SADD, the student organization for MADD.

    There isn’t any real trickery involved; it’s just theater. Death figures come and get the kids out of class; I think maybe make up is applied, and then later in the day there’s a staged car wreck somewhere on campus and an assembly.

    It triggers much more “what if” kind of thinking, rather than an actual belief that anyone has died.

    Kids like drama, so they like it. I don’t know if it makes them any less likely to drive drunk or get in cars with drunk drivers.

  13. I have been a part of a reenactment like this twice – the school I used to teach at called it “Every 15 Minutes.” A group of students apply to participate, are selected by a committee and are briefed on what is to occur. Parents even get involved on the “mock accident.” On the first day, the kids are brought out to a mock crash site set up in front of the school – the city fire department, police department, and ambulance services are all involved. They get the kids out of the wreckage and take several to the hospital, where they are put through a mock triage, all with cameras rolling. One kid is hauled off to jail, and the parents are called.

    Every 15 minutes throughout the school day, a heartbeat comes on the intercom and then goes to flatline. A pre-selected student is summoned out of class by “the grim reaper,” their face is painted white, and they are not allowed to talk to anyone else for the rest of the school day. That night, the students are taken off-site to a location unknown by their family and are counseled and talk about what it would be like to be one of those kids who was actually killed by a drunk driver. They even write mock “last words” to their families. My daughter was one of those kids, and she found it to be a very emotional but effective night.

    The next day there is a school assembly (all juniors and seniors only) where the students who were taken off campus come back and share what they learned. A couple of guest speakers are brought in who have first hand experience about losing a loved one to a drunk driver. It is a very emotionally taxing, but effective program. I participated as a teacher and a parent. I know it made a difference for my daughter, and for many of my students as well. This program can be done right and done effectively. We aren’t lying to our kids – we are showing them a controlled reality.

  14. chartermom says:

    In what NDC and jill describes it sounds like all the students know that what is being done is just drama and that noone has died. They are just asked to think about the “what if”. However in reading the article it sounds like the group in SD took the idea a step farther and let the kids think a friend had died.

    The drama sounds fine. However actually letting kids think that someone has died is just cruel.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Some years ago, in a nearby small town, a car full of kids hit a tree. The results were so bad that some of the first responders required counseling.
    There were spectators on the scene immediately, as the accident was downtown. The car had been doing 100mph+ in a 25mph zone and hit a big oak in the park.
    Among the spectators was a judge who lived nearby, and a bunch of teenagers.
    A year later, the judge remarked he was seeing some of the spectator kids in front of him for drunk driving.

    The late John Campbell, editor of Analog Science Fact and Fiction, was a font of provocative ideas. One was to legalize drugs. His idea was that kids are evolving away from listening to their parents. In earlier days, a kid who ignored parental advice was not likely to survive the day. “Who says I can’t go look at the sabre-tooth tiger!”

    With easily available hard drugs, we have the parents and the adult world in general advising against them. Thus separating the listeners from the non-listeners before the latter have time to breed.

    Campbell’s idea, and the judge’s observation both address that some people are incapable of learning, to their and our detriment. And there’s nothing you can do about it.


  1. […] school had modified a program called Every 15 Minutes. (Contrary to what I wrote here, this was not created by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.) Normally, the undead are pulled out of […]