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A crash course for safer driving

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In the middle of a warm afternoon Thursday, Tom Rambo, principal of Crater Academy of Health and Public Services, surveyed the scene unfolding on the high school’s field: students inside two battered vehicles, emergency responders in uniform milling about.

“It’s kind of an emotional thing,” he said. The teenagers wedged into a crumpled Dodge Intrepid and another lying still, stretched across the hood of a Honda Civic were all his students.

Makenna Turner, a junior, is too. She was the only one of them up and about, a fake gash on her forehead and fake blood on her hands. Pacing slightly, she tried to calm her nerves before assuming her role as the perpetrator of the staged devastation that her peers were now trickling out of class with their teachers to see.

“I feel like once I’m in the moment, it’s going to be so real,” she said, looking back at her classmate on the hood of the car. “I have to be taken away in a cop car and put in an actual cell.”

For some of the student participants in the “Evry 15 Minutes” demonstration, their roles as injured or dead victims of the staged crash extended for hours and even continued into a second day. But whether they left for the hospital, jail or the morgue, by evening they were back home with their families.

Melissa Wills, a registered nurse and volunteer firefighter who runs the program in Southern Oregon, knows what it’s like when those teens don’t come home — when the trauma, blood and loss are devastatingly real.

“It’s hard when you see a parent who comes in and sees their child dead,” Wills said. “It’s hard when you go on that crash scene and you see the kids there who maybe they didn’t die, but they killed somebody else.”

Exposure to a realistic imitation of the aftermath of avoidable crashes, she and the other volunteers hope, will plant cautionary seeds in the minds of teens, their parents and their friends to make choices that help save lives.

Ask Wills why young people should see their classmates pulled out of school by the Grim Reaper, arrested for drunk driving or zipped into a bodybag, and Wills can recite statistics as quickly as her own phone number about what those drivers are up against.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, for example, found that the risk of 16- or 17-year-old drivers being killed in a crash increases with each additional teenage passenger in the vehicle. Crash risk increases 44% with one passenger, doubles with two passengers, and quadruples with three or more passengers.

But showing a video or rattling off statistics isn’t equal to the experience Wills believes young people need to resist pressure and temptation to drive not only drunk but also distracted.

That’s why she tweaked the official Every 15 Minutes program, which focuses on drunk driving, to also include distracted driving, whether texting, talking on the phone or eating. She rebranded her program “Evry” 15 Minutes to imitate text shorthand someone might use while driving.

Sending or reading a text takes drivers’ eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, research has shown. At 55 mph on a highway, a car would travel the length of a football field, roughly 371 feet, in that span.

The vehicles donated for Thursday’s mock crash both had been involved in accidents: the Honda Civic arrived at the Crater campus banged up from a drunk-driving crash, and the Dodge had flipped over during a distracted-driving incident involving a cellphone, Wills told students.

“These are actual distracted-driving incidents that caused these damages,” Wills told the students Thursday.

The two-day event at Crater was the culmination of six months of Wills’ volunteer labor. Schools pay nothing for the demonstration except time out of the school day. She hopes to put it on at every high school in Jackson and Josephine counties.

Having already put on the program in two schools (corrected), she and the various fire and law enforcement agencies, hospitals and funeral homes she works with are accustomed to the flow.

“A lot of people that come year after year, they let me know they want to come back,” she said.

Parents, too, have the chance to be involved. In addition to the parents of the four students in the crash scene, another 15 to 20 families elected to have death notices from chaplains for their children who participated as “living dead.”

That process involved being pulled from class by the Grim Reaper — played faithfully by Wills’ mother Gina — and returning with ashy face paint, forbidden to speak to any classmates until the end of the event the following day.

A state trooper and a chaplain read obituaries for each student in the class they left. Parents are supposed to write them, but often find the process too emotional, Wills said.

Commitment to realistic portrayal is key.

“If it’s emotional, it’ll stick,” she said.

It takes the contributions of 15 agencies and companies to simulate the experience. As medical personnel with Jackson County Fire District No. 3 arrived on the scene at Crater, their instructions and inquiries amplified with a sound system to the watching audience, it was easy to forget the injuries and storyline were instructional and not actual.

Kendra Reed, who had the part of the on-scene fatality, had no lines to memorize. Her story was told through the Oregon State Police trooper who declared her dead at the scene and the EMTs who zipped her into a bodybag and transferred her to the back of Dodge minivan for transport to Conger-Morris Funeral Directors.

“This is not what we like to do,” said Rob Neff, funeral director. “You hope it opens their eyes.”

The next day at the assembly, Reed shared her thoughts about the experience, including when her parents came to Conger-Morris to see her lying in the chapel.

“I felt really bad for them to have to see me like that,” she said. “It was really sad.”

Students also saw their classmates’ final outcomes at the assembly. Bobby Bowler, who played the role of a driver distracted by a text, arrived at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center via air ambulance. At the scene, firefighters had used the Jaws of Life to extricate him and Elias Perez, out of the Dodge.

In the video at the next day’s assembly, students watched as Bowler’s father came to the emergency room to see his son pronounced dead.

Wills also ran through a presentation with a series of real-life crashes caused by drivers texting, a focal point in Oregon, which has some of the nation’s strictest laws regarding cellphone use while driving.

Data from Oregon State Police show how often troopers cite drivers for bad behavior along state and interstate highways. In Jackson and Josephine counties, more drivers were cited in the past three years for impaired rather than distracted driving, which bucks the statewide trend.

The two counties saw 1,833 citations for impaired driving, with 1,467 citations for distracted driving.

But this year, distracted driving citations are up in Jackson and Josephine counties. From Jan. 1, 2019, through Sept. 30 — the most recent data available — distracted driving outpaced impaired driving at 395 citations to 359.

The Federal Highway Administration, meanwhile, has named the week of Nov. 10-16 National Traffic Incident Response Awareness Week. The Oregon Department of Transportation published guidelines for various parties from drivers, responders and even news media to keep themselves and others safe in the immediate aftermath of a crash.

Traffic was one factor the personnel responding to Crater’s mock crash didn’t have to worry about on the field. And rather than lifelong disability or death, all involved went home with, hopefully, a renewed sense of respect for the responsibility behind the wheel.

“When it happens to someone, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s sad, but at least it wasn’t me,’” Turner said. “But it really could be you, anytime.”

A previous version of this article stated that Wills had put on the program at 11 schools. She has partnered with three schools:North Valley High School, Rogue River Junior/Senior High School and Crater Academy of Health and Public Services.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

A student actor plays a crash victim during a mock exercise at Crater High School. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Firefighters remove mock victims from a vehicle in a simulated driving crash at Crater High School Thursday afternoon. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune