Will Mock Car Crash at Bucks High School Keep Kids From Drinking and Driving?

The grue­some images will be tough to erase for the hun­dreds of kids who poured out of Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown on Thursday.

Three wrecked cars right in front of their Bucks County school. The anguished screams of “Somebody please help!” The gris­ly sight of wound­ed class­mates like 17-year-old Marlee Jardine drenched in blood. The sounds of police sirens and the thump­ing blades of a med­ical chop­per. Finally, watch­ing a sil­ver hearse arrive.

I grew up with these peo­ple,” said Olivia Burgo, 17, while a local res­cue squad used the Jaws of Life to pull her friends from the wrecked cars on the sun­ny and hot morn­ing. “It’s hard to see them like this. My stom­ach hurts.” Other stu­dents looked just as stunned.

School offi­cials cer­tain­ly hope Truman’s seniors won’t for­get the trau­ma. Holding onto those feel­ings of shock and nau­sea is the main idea behind the annu­al mock car crash at the 1,500-student Bristol Township School District high school, one of many sim­i­lar fake-blood-spattered events staged this prom sea­son around the Philadelphia region, aimed at scar­ing teenagers away from drunk­en or, increas­ing­ly, dis­tract­ed driving.

It’s fit­ting that one of the most dra­mat­ic of these events takes place at Truman – the “Drama High” whose award-winning the­ater pro­gram inspired the hit NBC show Rise!Painful lessons are dri­ven home through an elab­o­rate day­long pro­gram in which – in addi­tion to the grue­some wreck — a hulk­ing class­mate dressed as the Grim Reaper yanks stu­dents from class­rooms as the remain­ing kids hear fake obit­u­ar­ies writ­ten by the kids’ par­ents, most com­posed over real tears.

We have had kids show up years lat­er say­ing, ‘We nev­er for­got. We talk about it all the time,’” said Jill Saul, a spe­cial edu­ca­tion teacher who’s direct­ed the annu­al mock crash – which costs about $4,000 to stage – for much of its 20-year his­to­ry. Over that time, the rites – from buy­ing cheap “prom dress­es” at a thrift store to select­ing pop­u­lar kids to play the dead and the dying – have become as much a part of May as the prom itself. The for­mal will be held May 18 at the Radisson Hotel in Trevose.

But amid the screams and sirens, there’s an increas­ing­ly loud debate among the drunken-driving-prevention com­mu­ni­ty about whether the core premise of the pho­ny crash­es – that see­ing the car­nage and expe­ri­enc­ing pangs of grief will fright­en teenagers into avoid­ing alco­hol or arrang­ing safe rides – actu­al­ly works.

Some advo­ca­cy groups, includ­ing Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), have come out against mock crash­es as a pre­ven­tion tool, cit­ing research show­ing that their psy­cho­log­i­cal impact on teenagers’ decision-making may fade as soon as sum­mer, the dead­liest sea­son for teen auto fatalities.

SADD and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have called for com­pre­hen­sive ongo­ing pro­grams to com­bat drunk­en and dis­tract­ed dri­ving, as opposed to the shock val­ue of a one-time event. Critics also wor­ry that the mor­bid mock crash­es will do psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age to some teenagers, out­weigh­ing any driving-safety benefits.

From a pub­lic health per­spec­tive, we have learned that shock and awe meth­ods of pre­ven­tion do not lead to long-term change,” said Kim Everett, trau­ma pre­ven­tion coor­di­na­tor for St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne. The Bucks County health cen­ter used to donate $500 or $1,000 every year to defray the cost of Truman’s pro­duc­tion, but stopped two years ago, about the time that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said state funds shouldn’t go for such events but rather for evidence-based pro­grams, accord­ing to Everett.

Still, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of mock crash­es grew dur­ing a peri­od when teen traf­fic deaths plunged sharply – by more than half from 2005 to 2014, accord­ing to the Governors Highway Safety Association. But the Washington group then saw a 10 per­cent spike in 2015 that experts link to a rise in teen dri­vers dis­tract­ed by tex­ting or oth­er devices, and car crash­es remain the No. 1 cause of teen death. Advocates say more focus is need­ed not just on dis­tract­ed dri­ving but a lack of teen aware­ness that dri­ving while high on mar­i­jua­na is also dangerous.

Any cau­tion flags from advo­cates and highway-safety experts don’t seem to have slowed the growth of mock crash­es at Philadelphia sub­ur­ban high schools. Two years ago, Main Line Health her­ald­ed a $45,000 grant from State Farm Insurance to expand its pro­gram to include 11 high schools in the west­ern sub­urbs, includ­ing Penncrest, Ridley, Garnet Valley, and Villa Maria Academy.

I think it’s real­ly try­ing to have the kids stop and think about the con­se­quences,” said Main Line Health’s Deborah Mantegna, man­ag­er of com­mu­ni­ty health ser­vices. Its pro­gram also includes a speak­er who warns about the con­se­quences of drunk­en dri­ving — not just injuries and death, but the finan­cial costs and how a DUI arrest might thwart col­lege admission.

Our feel­ing is, if it saves one kid, then it’s effec­tive for us,” said Carole Roskoph, activ­i­ties coor­di­na­tor and English teacher at Cherry Hill High School West, where kids – along with those from crosstown Cherry Hill East – have been stag­ing mock crash­es for about 15 years with help from town­ship police.

Saul said there has not been a drunken-driving death among their stu­dents for many years. (A cou­ple of years ago, a Truman stu­dent who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the mock crash died a few months lat­er in a drag-racing inci­dent that didn’t involve drinking.)

Over the years, the event has been expand­ed or tweaked. “Injured” or “dying” kids are actu­al­ly tak­en to hos­pi­tals, by ambu­lance or heli­copter, and police arrest the “drunk” dri­ver, who goes before a judge, then to jail.

Every year, after the trau­ma of act­ing out their own deaths, the vic­tims and oth­er par­tic­i­pants retreat after school to a local hotel to relax and decom­press, before endur­ing anoth­er emo­tion­al­ly gru­el­ing expe­ri­ence: hear­ing speech­es from fam­i­ly mem­bers affect­ed by drunken-driving crash­es. The stu­dents stay the night and the next day share what they’ve learned from the expe­ri­ence with their class­mates at an assembly.

Most kids are recep­tive to it,” said Truman prin­ci­pal Lyndell Davis, a strong pro­po­nent. “Some kids, like most teenagers, think they’re invincible.”

Shakira Alford – whose 17-year-old daugh­ter, Brianna Cliney, was tapped by the Grim Reaper to become a “ghost” in the Truman exer­cise – said she recent­ly lost a nephew in a car crash. Although she called it “a lit­tle scary” to write a trib­ute as if her daugh­ter had died, Alford said she came around to sup­port an event that “will be an eye-opener when it comes to get­ting in a car.”

On the morn­ing of the fake crash Thursday, Truman kids were whip­sawed between the the­atri­cal­i­ty of the event and its grim mes­sage. “I think we’re laugh­ing it off to hide the fact that we’re shook,” said Manilyn Lalo, 17, while get­ting made up with wounds and gash­es to become a vic­tim in the “sober car” wal­loped by a drunk driver.

Even if the blood was fake, the emo­tions were unde­ni­ably real.

I want you to know how much I love you,” Saul said, tear­ing up as she addressed stu­dents after the “vic­tims” had left for the hos­pi­tal where trau­ma­tized par­ents would get the news that their child had died, and the hearse slow­ly drove away with the body of a stu­dent who had been killed at the scene. “I don’t want to ever go to your funer­al. Please make good choic­es and healthy choices.”

by Kathy Boccella, Staff Writer PhillyNews.com @Kathy_Boccella  kboccella@phillynews.com