Photo courtesy of the Red Cross’s Central Illinois Chapter.
Car accidents can be devastating. They can be made up of mangled metal, calls to the police and hospital, injuries, blood and maybe even death. A common cause of accidents is drunk drivers. For some Central Illinois high schoolers, they are getting more than just words, photos, and lectures from their teacher about drinking and driving. They are witnessing the dangers firsthand.
Every year since 1994 the America Red Cross Central Illinois Chapter has teamed with the Illinois Department of Transportation and area high schools to put together an event called Prom Night Crashes.
It is a reenactment featuring real life high school students acting out a prom night drunk driving accident. The experience can be intense for those watching and those involved. Andriana Sphmidgall, a Dee-Mack High School junior who played a dead body in the reenactment, found it difficult to even listen to the event.
“Hearing the jaws of life cut the car open and hearing the girl who was screaming names, yelling my name, yelling other students’ names, and things like that really hit home for me,” Sphmidgall said.
Two real cars that look like they have impacted are used for the event. After a brief setting up of the scene by a student, a tarp is taken off the cars and two students run up to respond to the fictional accident and the reenactment is underway.
Other aspects of the event include a student who is pretending to be the drunk driver, another set of students who play freaked out passengers and a student playing a dead body. Local police officers, fire fighters, medical emergency personnel and a coroner also show up.
Dee-Mack, located in Mackinaw, hosted the event on April 11.
Sphmidgall has always been against driving while intoxicated, she is even president of the school’s Safe Driving Team group, but while she was being put in a body bag, she still had the realization that an accident like the one being portrayed could happen to anyone.
It was a thought that had occurred to more than just her. A number of Sphmidgall’s friends came up to her afterward in shock saying how they never thought it could happen to them, one friend mentioning how she started crying when Sphmidgall was put in the body bag.
The reenactment can get especially emotional at its conclusion when a poem relating what could have been the last words of the dead student if he or she had not gotten in the wreck is played over the intercoms. The high schooler who acted as the dead body is the one who reads the poem.
Why make the event so realistic in the first place? Monica Grugett, ARCCIC’s director of youth education, believes having all these real elements – car crash sound effects, the screams from students and the body on the hood of the car – helps drive the message home more than just hearing about it in a classroom or on TV.
“The more interactive you can get with students, and that’s for any age really, the better it is and the more I think they can retain the information,” Grugett said. “This is about as real as you can get without making it real.”
One added element that Grugett admits is unrealistic is the occasional addition of a hearse coming to the scene of the crash. While it would not actually happen, she thinks it adds more weight to the message of the event.
To increase the message’s impact further, a real mother who lost a child in an impaired driving crash speaks about her experience.
Other Central Illinois high schools will be hosting the reenactment until early May. The Red Cross has asked the identity of the particular schools to remain a secret until such events are held, however, in order to maintain the surprise for the students.
For more information about bringing Prom Night Crashes to your school, you can call Grugett at 309-202-0032 or email her at Monica.Grugett@redcross.org.
For the past few years, the Red Cross has been having the students fill out a survey before and after the event. They have also been collaborating with the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria.
The University is not finished looking over the data provided by the Red Cross, but according to the Red Cross’s preliminary survey data, it does look like the program has been making an impact on high schoolers.
The event is influencing students in two ways. It is increasing their knowledge of the consequences of drunk driving. It is also creating a behavioral change. The students are not as willing to get in the car with someone who is drunk nor do they want to drive while intoxicated.
“It’s kind of this thing too of being aware of your own personal self, and having the power to say, ‘Sorry I’m not going to ride with you home, because I don’t think you’re able to drive,’ is really important,” Grugett said. “I don’t think sometimes they [students] realize they have that power to do that.”
The student performers for the reenactment are chosen by each school by people like Dee-Mack’s Hilary Duke, the school’s counselor and the organizer of Dee-Mack’s Prom Night Crashes.
As a mother, the reenactments are hard for Duke to watch, but she has seen and read about the power of the poem and the speech of the mother who lost a child in an accident. While there is always going to be students who do not take the event seriously, Duke has seen many students thank the mother for sharing her experience.
The Red Cross does not have any control over which students Duke or any other organizer pick for the reenactment. The Central Illinois organization does suggest that the school picks students from different social groups because there is a concern that seeing a person, such as Sphmidgall, who other students know would never drink and drive may take the students out of the reenactment.
Grugett and Duke still think the event willwork even if such students are cast. This was the case with Dee-Mack’s reenactment this year, Duke says. She thinks anyone could get caught up in prom night. The addition of a young man who probably would not drink and drive did not take them out of the reenactment but instead reinforce it.
“I think in a way it made them [go,] ‘woah,’ because it could happen [to them],” Duke said.
Sphmidgall is in full agreement. Even the teenagers who know they are not invincible are in danger, she says. Those types of students say they would never drink and drive, but if they went to a party or out with some friends, Sphmidgall is not so sure that all of them would stick to that decree. Sphmidgall thinks the event can sway those types of people.
For her, it has made her truly understand the seriousness of the issue. She has been preaching to students, high school and junior high ones, for three years about not letting themselves, their parents or their siblings drink and drive.
Being a part of the event, though, allowed her to grasp “what it would feel like not even to be the dead girl but to hear your friends freak out and see and listen to everyone and panic and realize anybody’s life could change in a flash.”
The times when Sphmidgall thinks about safe driving, she does not only think of what would happen if one of her friends or family members got hurt but what it would do to her family and friends if she was injured.
“When we [the Safe Driving Team] go to junior high [schools] and when I’m talking to high school students, that’s what I bring up,” Sphmidgall said. “Don’t think about what is happening to you. Think about how it’s gonna effect everyone in your life. I feel like that’s really what hits home for people, and I think that’s what the reenactment reinforced, too.”