Program puts grim face on drunken driving

'Every 15 Minutes' sought to drive home the lesson: Drinking, driving don't mix.

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WALLA WALLA -- The Grim Reaper paid an unexpected visit to Walla Walla High School this week, walking into classrooms and fetching victims throughout a day.

The chosen students were escorted away, but then reappeared on campus, cloaked in black and deathly pale, with black paint marking their hollowed eyes.

The "walking dead" could be seen sitting in classrooms, eating a meal or crossing through the campus, serving as symbols of the potential tragic ending of driving drunk.

Wa-Hi seniors took part in "Every 15 Minutes," an annual awareness and educational program in which seniors learn the consequences of driving while intoxicated. The program was launched in Spokane in 1990, when statistics at the time showed someone died in an alcohol-related crash every 15 minutes. More recent data shows drunken-driving fatalities occurring about every 30 minutes.

Locally, the Walla Walla County Traffic Safety/DUI Task Force began the program aimed at high school students in 1998. It brings the program to Wa-Hi seniors every spring, and every three years to all students in surrounding high schools.

Over two days this week, law enforcement and emergency responders worked together to put on demonstrations. They spoke in classrooms throughout the day Wednesday, even as the Grim Reaper, played by Washington State Patrol Trooper Rocky Miller, made his calls.

The program included the participation of about 32 students, who agreed ahead of time to be among the "walking dead" and take part in an assembly Thursday.

"We include the 'walking dead' in the hopes that students will take seriously, at least for a moment, these symbols of victims of DUI fatalities," said city police Officer Tim Bennett, one of the event coordinators. "During the classroom presentations, we ask the students to think about how their lives would be changed if they lost a close friend or family member because of a drunken driver."

On Thursday morning, hundreds of seniors entered the school's auditorium to take in the final day of presentations. They watched as their classmates simulated the events leading up to an unfortunate party.

A student calls another student to a party at his house while his parents are away for the weekend. At the party, teens are dancing, laughing and drinking heavily. One girl, senior Hannah Yancey, doesn't drink and leaves the party alone in her car. She dies anyway, when her car is struck broadside by a friend from the party who did leave drunk.

On the stage, real paramedics rush to help the girl lying on the street, while a deputy conducts a field sobriety on the driver who survived. The boy is eventually arrested, while the girl is placed in a body bag and wheeled away on a stretcher.

Bennett reminded the students that the focus of the program was not to lecture them on underage drinking.

"We didn't preach about don't drink until you're 21," Bennett said at the start of the assembly. "We did urge that if you're going to drink, to have a plan ahead of time."

As part of the simulations, students who "died" while in school Wednesday did not go home for the rest of the day. And two parents, who had been contacted ahead of time for their participation, got visits from law enforcement informing them their children had died as a result of drunken driving.

Walla Walla Fire Deputy Chief Bob Yancey, whose daughter Hannah "died" in the simulated crash, had prepared himself all day for the deputy's visit, but said he struggled anyway as he heard about the crash.

Yancey was one of two parents at the assembly who spoke about the pain that stemmed from the visit. As a firefighter, Yancey's job often takes him to crash scenes where similar tragedies have occurred. Yet even for seasoned emergency responders, seeing young people die in such crashes is a struggle.

But the examples of the walking dead, the deputy visits to parents and the arrest of the young man served mainly as illustrations. To send the message home, coordinators brought the mangled truck of a young woman killed while driving drunk on Highway 12.

Near the end of the assembly, students heard from Ruthie Elliott, mother of Shannon Elliott, 23, whose truck was on display at the school.

Shannon died in December after her truck crossed into the opposite lane of the highway near the airport and crashed head-on with a logging truck.

Elliott told of how her daughter's body was so burned, the coroner used dental records to identify her, and her remains had to be cremated because there wasn't enough of her left for a casket.

Elliott said her daughter had spent the night before her death drinking with friends well into the early morning. Shortly before 4 a.m., Shannon decided to head from Walla Walla to her home in Waitsburg. Elliott said she later learned several other young people drove home drunk that night.

"It's a gamble," she said about driving drunk. "Shannon lost."

Elliott urged the teens to never get behind the wheel if they've been drinking, to never get in a car with a driver who has been drinking, and to do their utmost to help a friend not drive drunk.

"It's better to have your friend mad at you than to never have your friend again," she said.

She also reminded them of the false sense of power and control they may experience when they have moved out of their teens and into their early 20s.

"The consequences are the same, whether you're a legal drinker or an underage drinker," she said.

As she spoke about her daughter, who was one of 10 children and the first among her siblings to graduate from college, teens in the audience cried outwardly while listening attentively.

The teens learned that the choice to drive drunk doesn't affect only them. It will have a shock-wave effect starting with that first visit by an officer to notify their family, well into the future as the reality sinks in. Police said the same goes for someone who causes a fatality while driving drunk but survives.

"Mostly it's going to destroy your family," said Elliott, as she explained the difficulty getting through the holidays, Shannon's memorial, and now dealing with the legal and financial consequences of her death.

"It will never be the same."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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