Teens take ‘crash’ course on reckless driving

Local firefighters, EMTs and deputies stormed the Friday Harbor High School on April 17 to rescue 10 teens in a two-car accident, while hundreds of students watched.

The scene wasn’t one of the real-life teen car crashes that occur daily in the United States, but was a mock scenario as part of a program spearheaded by the San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services. It aims to act out the dangers of driving recklessly — whether due to texting, speeding, or alcohol or drug use. Every three years since 2004, Lainey Volk with San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services has managed the enactment.

“When you aren’t paying attention, you could lose your life or someone else’s,” said Volk. “The whole point is when you’re driving a vehicle that is very, heavy and moving at a rapid rate of speed — when it strikes something, it causes serious damage.”

The two-day event follows those impacted by a drunk driving accident each step after the initial decision to drink and drive: from the car crash to the hospital to the courtroom and even to the funeral home, which was set up at the San Juan Community Theatre.

“Injured” teen actors were evacuated from the high school track and field, using gurneys by emergency response crews and transported to the island’s hospital for mock treatment in ambulances. One student even appeared to be transported to Seattle by helicopter.

The result of the accident: one character was left paralyzed and another in critical condition. Two died.

Afterward, the simulated driver, 17-year-old senior Rowan Jons, was fake-arrested and booked into San Juan County jail. He had a brief meeting with his faux lawyer and arrived at the county courthouse, clad in an orange jumpsuit, for his sentencing.

The mock judge, played by San Juan Island attorney Carla Higginson, sentenced the defendant to 18 years in prison.

“The choice to drink and drive has had consequences that will haunt this young man for the rest of his life,” said Higginson, adding that this former honor student would be going to prison instead of college.

“This is a loss that will take away more than just the two lives that were lost,” she continued. “It really takes the defendant’s life as well, for many years to come.”

The program, which began more than a decade ago, is called Every 15 Minutes and originally stood for the rate a person was killed in alcohol-related car accidents in the United States. Today, it is more like every 51 minutes, Volk explained, partly due to advances in vehicle design. According to the American Automobile Association, new teen drivers ages 16 and 17 are already three times more likely to be in a fatal car crash than adults. Adding distractions increases the risk. AAA reports that six out of 10 teen car accidents are caused by distracted drivers who are engaging in activities like talking to passengers or looking at cellphones.

AAA recommends parents talk to teens about the importance of focused driving and to display responsible driving themselves to teach their kids by example.

Friday Harbor High School junior Payton Brooks was one of 18 students pulled from a Friday Harbor High School class on April 17. Her face was painted white, she wasn’t permitted to speak and her obituary, based on her actual life, was read to her class and taped to her locker.

She didn’t even return home to her parents after school. Selected students stayed overnight at Roche Harbor Resort, highlighting the impact of car crash deaths to parents as well as youth.

“Families would be impacted too,” said Brooks. “They wouldn’t be able to say goodnight to us, they wouldn’t be able to get us up in the morning.”

The serious topic, said Volk, has serious results. She recalled one incident, about 12 years ago, when several teen girls did not ride with an intoxicated teen driver after going through the program. The driver and passengers, however, ended up in a fatal accident.

“It actually does save lives,” she said. “There are so many stories of people making better decisions after being in the program. It’s a whole lot more than what you see in the field.”