Every 15 minutes someone in the country dies from an alcohol-related traffic accident, and Foothill High School students Olivia Hartjen and Marissa Khoury deserve our thanks for the work they've done over the past year or so to stop these tragedies, at least locally.
Both seniors, they managed last week's "Every 15 Minutes" program at the school, a yearlong task that involved hundreds of hours of planning, fundraising and then actually staging the two-day event.
The program was started in 1995 by the Chico Police Department and is now an event staged at high schools throughout California, including Foothill and Amador Valley high schools, which alternate each year in hosting the program. Realism is what "Every 15 Minutes" is about.
Last week's event incorporated two crashed cars placed on Foothill Road, role-playing by more than 30 students, including a driver of the crashed car and two others "killed" in the accident, and a student assembly and retreat held for students and parents who were part of the effort.
Pleasanton police, firefighters from the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department, the Alameda County Coroner's Office and many others joined in the program, contributing their services and equipment. The California Highway Patrol contributed $20,000 to the program, which involved 1,100 students from the junior and senior classes.
Mike Dutra of Paramedics Plus added that emergency medical services personnel supplied to the demonstration were EMTs and paramedics employed by Paramedics Plus, the county ambulance contractor that provides service to the residents of Alameda County under contract.
"Paramedics Plus graciously donated the services of their crews to participate and paid the crews who helped out with the program," Dutra said in an email to the Pleasanton Weekly. "We (were) proud to be a part of the complete system of EMS here, proudly serving everyone here."
At the crash site, police arrested the driver while others treated the "injured" and the coroner placed the body of a "dead" passenger in a bodybag and drove away. To add to the impact, students who agreed to serve as "the living dead" were called out of their classrooms by police, with the officer reading their obituary as each student leaves.
A loud, ominous heartbeat is broadcast across the campus before each of the "living dead" is pulled out of class, signifying that someone is dying every 15 minutes in an alcohol-related traffic accident somewhere in country. All of this happened in perfect synchronization and timing, thanks to Olivia and Marissa's good work.
The two seniors, with the help of their Leadership class teachers Mary Zahuta and Joseph Friesen, handled all of this. They were the head coordinators, but also had a committee of students helping plan the event. They met with the program's sponsors, recruited the 33 students who agreed to be among "the living dead," and arranged for a casket to be displayed at an assembly in memory of the three students who role-played the dead, seniors Greg Hadley, Daniel Rodriguez and Kelsie Natsch.
To add to the realism, parents and students wrote letters about their experience, including emotion-packed final messages by two parents to their "dead" children and another to his parents from one of the students who "died" in the crash. These letters, prepared at a retreat following last Thursday's event, were read aloud in the Friday morning assembly, that included a video showing the teens pretending to drink liquor at a house party when police arrived and everyone ran, with some driving off onto Foothill Road.
At the assembly, you could hear a pin drop as guest speaker Andrew Pryfogle recalled the accident 21 years ago when a drunk driver careened into the path of his brother Mark, killing him instantly. Mark Pryfogle's daughter, Sara, now 26, traveled from her home in Texas to join her uncle at the Foothill assembly, where she talked publicly for the first time about the tragedy that killed her father when she was only 5.
Another speaker, Ken Williams, talked about the loss he still endures after the death of his daughter Laurel, who was killed in an accident on Foothill Road in 2007 while a passenger in a car driven by her best friend Katie McKewon, who had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit of .08, according to a toxicology report.
"In talking to students who participated in this program, I know it had a positive impact on them and their behavior," Olivia Hartjen said. "Some students who were known to drink alcohol and then possibly drive were obviously shaken by the events of the two days and told me they would never drink and drive again."
Although the program was focused on drinking and driving, the messages by speakers also dealt with the equally dangerous risks of mixing drugs with driving and also texting while behind the wheel.
According to a recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 7,000 drivers ages 15 to 20 are involved in fatal traffic crashes across the nation each year. The report showed that 18% of the drivers had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher, despite it being illegal for teens to drink. The NHTSA also said 64% of those drivers died as a result of the crash.
"I just hope that the 'Every 15 Minutes' program at Foothill had an impact that will make all of our students aware of the risks and change the behavior of anyone who drinks and drives," Olivia said.