Learning price of drunken driving every 15 minutes

CHP officer Traci Gallian
CHP officer Traci Gallian sflores@fresnobee.com

The Every 15 Minutes program is administered statewide by the CHP via a grant from the state Office of Traffic Safety. It is a partnership of law enforcement, educators, firefighters, community hospitals, emergency medical responders, chaplains, counselors, the judiciary, community groups, local businesses and parents.

The program was named Every 15 Minutes when it was created in 2000. But thanks to education and programs like Every 15 Minutes, the statistic has changed. Now every 53 minutes someone in the United States of America is killed or injured by a drunken driver.

Every 15 Minutes offers real-life experience without the risks. This emotionally charged program is an event designed to remind teens of the dangerous consequences of drinking alcohol and texting while driving.

I became involved in the program in 2000, speaking at Morro Bay High School as a survivor of DUI. Not only was it difficult to speak to a group of teenagers about a traumatic event in my life, but even more difficult to return to the city where my traffic collision occurred. As I drove northbound on Highway 1 approaching the exit where my nightmare played out, I was reminded of the night my life changed forever. I was hit head-on by an intoxicated driver, who later died as a result of the collision.

Every 15 Minutes is dear to my heart and is a fantastic program to teach young people the consequences of drinking and driving.

Fortunately, my story has a happy conclusion. I am alive and able to speak of the horrible experience I had because of one person’s irresponsible choice. The decision to drink and drive is selfish. When a person chooses to drive under the influence of alcohol, her or he is choosing to disregard everyone else’s safety.

The two-day program focuses on high school juniors and seniors, challenging them to think about drinking, driving, personal safety and the responsibility of making mature decisions that can affect family, friends and others.

During the first day’s events, the “Grim Reaper” calls students, who are selected from a cross-section of the student body, out of class. One student is removed from class every 15 minutes. A CHP officer immediately enters the classroom and reads an obituary, which was written by the “dead” student’s parents explaining the circumstances of their classmate’s demise and the contributions the student made to the school and the community.

A few minutes later, the student returns to class as the “living dead,” complete with white face make-up, a coroner’s tag, and a T-shirt to identify them as part of the program.

From that point on, “living dead victims” will not speak or interact with other students for the remainder of the school day. Simultaneously, uniformed officers make mock death notifications to the parents of these children at their home, place of employment or business.

After lunch, a simulated traffic collision is staged on the school grounds. Rescue workers treat “injured” student participants. These students experience firsthand the sensations of being involved in a tragic, alcohol-related collision.

The coroner handles fatalities at the scene, while firefighters and paramedics extricate the injured students. CHP officers investigate, arrest and book the student “drunken driver.”

Participants continue their experience with trips to the morgue, hospital emergency room and to the police department jail where they are booked for drunken driving.

At the end of the day, students who participated in the staged accident, as well as those who were made up as the “living dead,” are transported to a local hotel or a community church for an overnight student retreat. The retreat simulates the separation from friends and family.

A support staff of counselors and CHP officers facilitate the retreat. While there, students may not make contact with their parents, friends, or family.

I have been a speaker at the retreats for local high schools since I joined the CHP. Being a survivor of DUI and an officer with the CHP has helped me to heal. Students can relate to my story and they learn from my experience.

On the second day there is an assembly hosted by a CHP officer who guides the audience through the devastating effects of losing a loved one due to DUI. Speakers include students who read letters to their parents, CHP officers with a safety message, and hospital personnel who share their emotional trauma of dealing with kids killed in traffic collisions. Additionally, parents and guest speakers share their personal reflections of their child’s involvement in this program .

The focus of the assembly stresses how drinking and driving can affect many more people than just the one who drinks. This very emotional and heart-wrenching event illustrates to students the potentially dangerous consequences of their use of alcohol.

California Highway Patrol officer Traci Gallian’s “On Duty” column publishes bimonthly. She can be reached at tagallian@chp.ca.gov.