Every 15 Minutes: Examining the Impact of Tam’s Drunk Driving Simulation


By Joel Abrahams & Racine Cermak


The tarps were removed and the screaming began. Two students sat in the front seats of a small, partially crushed car, both of them covered in blood. A senior boy fell from the driver’s seat of the other car and immediately began to call out to his passenger, who had flown through the windshield and was sprawled across the hood. A mix of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances, their sirens blaring, flooded the scene and went to work rescuing the injured students from the destroyed vehicle.

Every four years Tam hosts the Every 15 Minutes program, which is coordinated by the Cali- fornia Highway Patrol and funded through pub- lic safety grants and the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association. The first day of the presentation consisted of a staged drunk driving crash involving four students and the mock deaths of multiple other students, who become members of the “living dead.” The second day featured a school-wide assembly where a trial was held for the “drunk driver.” A short film was shown, de- tailing the events preceding the crash as well as the incidents that later occurred after at the hospital, morgue, and county jail. Following the video was a presentation from guest speaker Jason Barber, a drug and alcohol counselor who caused a drunken driving accident in his early college years. The assembly concluded with the reading of several letters written the night before from the “victims” to their parents and vice versa.

Every 15 Minute’s provoked different reactions from students, here are a few:

“The [program] really impacted me because it’s something that happens all the time and is all around us, but people just pretend its no big deal, but in reality, it is a huge deal. Every 15 Minutes was such an inspiring way of getting the word out about the dangers
of driving under the influence.” –Claudia Shapiro, junior

“It was a disgusting waste of the minimal funding that we receive from our capitalistic government” – Jake Zwibach, sophomore

“I personally was ex- tremely affected. I knew a lot of people in the simulation and it was all very real. I still will not let people make jokes about it because the entire scenario was so vivid. I have always been against drunk driving but now I won’t let anyone else drink and drive either. Its not worth it.” – Suzy Plessas, senior

“It was just amazing to hear from people who have dealt with it before.” – Claire Geyer, sophomore

Joel Abrahams

I set off for school on Tuesday, March 22 knowing I’d be at school for exactly one class period and then leaving. I almost considered not coming in the first place, but my intent was to protest the presentation of Every 15 Minutes, not to simply stay home. Pulling up to the intersection of Camino Alto and Miller, my mind was flooded with memories from the staged car crash I saw four years ago. The bleachers waiting to seat an unsuspecting student body and the horde of police officers around the “scene”. When the PA systems blasted the 911 call at 10:45, I quietly slipped out of class and went home, refusing to have anything to do with the program. I want to give three very clear messages to back up my reasoning for leaving, because I know the administration aims to make their own point in hosting this presentation.

First of all, I saw Every 15 Minutes prior to this year. I came to Tam in eighth grade for extra classes, and saw it at the ripe, young age of 13. Needless to say, it was completely traumatizing. I had not even started thinking about drinking or driving, let alone combining the two. Secondly, in no way have I ever, or will I ever think that drinking and driving is anything less than a life-threatening crime, and my choice to not come to school should not be seen as a rejection of Every 15 Minutes’. Finally, my reason for skipping school wasn’t one motivated by laziness or senioritis, but in honest protest of the program.

My opposition to Every 15 Minutes is based on the morality question inherent in showing a bunch of developing youth a mock accident and the variety of emotional traumatization this program caused our school, combined with the fact that the program fails to reach those who actually drink and drive.

Besides, what does it say about the Tam community if we try to teach students this lesson by parading a gruesome, bloody car accident in front of their faces? This small, predominantly white town is lucky enough and rich enough to afford such an elaborate program. Unfortunately, it only reinforces the idea that we live in the sheltered Marin Bubble, where it just ain’t no thang to volunteer a chopper to land on Miller, because chances are, the civil services of Marin County probably didn’t need it that day.

My sister, who as a freshman is a year older than I was when I saw the crash, said, “It was kinda gross. Looked cool though.” What she told me shows that many freshmen just haven’t started contemplating the freedoms and consequences of driving, and by the time they do, the event will be in their heads. While it did affect a lot of students emotionally, most if not all of these students have enough common sense to refrain from drinking and driving. From what I’ve noticed, some people actually pressure their friends not to, and many students see those who do drink and drive as mentally challenged pariahs.

As for those few seniors who were laughing during the demo? Those shameful jerks will just have to learn their lesson the hard way, because if that won’t force it through their thick skulls, only the worst will. And seniors, try to be role models, considering that we’re statistically responsible for these kinds of wreckless actions. The chances are that a few months from now, the shameless display of fake blood and life-ending screams will be nothing but a muddled memory in most students’ high school careers.

I’d argue that the second day of listening to those involved in drunk-driving speak about their experiences was much more valuable to students. It’s possible that without the events of the first day, some wouldn’t have been able to open up to the speakers of the second day, yet I don’t believe that justifies the need for such a gruesome, elaborate event to take place over two days. There needs to be a point where we realize that the paranoia, fear and emotional anxiety vastly outweighs the positive effects of the first day. Does education really need to come in such a traumatizing, depressing extent? It’s like Nancy Grace from CNN telling everyone that nucelar rain from Japan would come down from the atmosphere; it’s true in the fact that there is some radiation, but the reality is that it is so slight it won’t affect our health. Using these short-term fear tactics only results in long-term paranoia associated with the issue, yet not the concept, (which will most likely be true with both situations). The school shouldn’t be teaching through fear tactics, as they lead students to believe that these methods are not only acceptable, but looked upon with approval. It will keep people scared of drunk driving, but simply because of the fear factor of the event, they will forget about the message. Driving under the influence is an issue, however prevalent it may or may not be, that must have an open and fair dialogue with teenagers and adults. To me, Every 15 Minutes it comes off as a failed attempt to communicate with the students about a topic that must be addressed properly.

Racine Cermak

The only light in the room emanated from a single candle that sat on the floor in front of a cross-legged girl. Despite the shadow being thrown across her face, I could still see the redness in her eyes and the look of determination on her face as she spoke slowly and clearly.

“Just a moment in this lifetime, just a tragedy ahead. Not knowing where each turn will lead, within seconds we might be dead,” she read aloud from her journal. “Live each day to the fullest, do not stop to wonder why. Do everything your heart desires, in dreams, reach for the sky.” These powerful words rang out into the silence as the soft voice continued. On either side of her sat solemn looking students, each one the member of a large circle spread across the dark room. They stared at the floor with vacant expressions, but their eyes were intense and focused as they absorbed every word.

Earlier that day, I arrived at the Embassy Suites with the other Every 15 Minutes participants. We would be spending the night together, sequestered. We had no phones, no computers, no communication to the outside world. In order to instill upon our friends, our family and us the idea that we had actually died and were gone forever, in the wake of our staged drunk driving deaths at school. We were scheduled to hear from several speakers throughout the night, the first of whom was Judge Paul Haakenson, followed by a slideshow of photos depicting crashed cars and injuries narrated by an emergency room nurse from Marin General. Both provided me with a harsh dose of reality, but at the end I was scared of driving more than anything else.

The next presentation left the biggest imprint on my heart because it was delivered by people who had been personally involved in an accident. The man described his sister to us, as a kind and caring woman. After college she became a drug and alcohol counselor who worked closely with the Every 15 Minutes program in her community. One night, she was driving home from Disneyland with her husband, mother, and three children when a drunk driver going over sixty-five miles per hour crashed into their car. Her father, who was waiting for the family to arrive home, dosed off and was awoken by a call from the police around 2 a.m. notifying him of the crash. Her husband was killed instantly, and she managed to survive 25 minutes before dying on scene. Her mother, son, and one daughter survived the crash without lasting injuries. Unluckily, her other daughter, Marcella, was thrown into the back of the van on impact and was the last person to be rescued from the vehicle. She was in a coma for four and a half months following the crash and when she finally woke up, she not only had to hear that both of her parents were dead, but she was forced to relearn the mechanics of eating, speaking, walking, and more. She was only 8 years old at the time. As the tears gathered in my eyes, Marcella’s uncle announced that Marcella was here to tell us about her experience first hand. He added that this was only the second time that she had told her story without notes and for her to be adlibbing this speech was quite an accomplishment.

A young beautiful woman with olive toned skin and shoulder length, curly brown hair with a large flower clipped into it, stood up from one of the seats along the side wall of the room and made her way to the front. Standing before us, she looked as normal as anyone else in the room. When she began to speak, she did so very slowly and at first I thought that she was merely nervous. I tried to prevent the shock I felt from reaching my face when I realized that she had a speech impediment. She explained in slow, careful words what it was like having to relearn the basic functions of life. One day during physical therapy, she became extremely frustrated with her inability to perform a task and she spelled out on the letter board she used for communication that she wanted to be taken back to her room. As her aggravation peaked, she turned to see her family outside the room, waiting to see her. She thought to herself, “My family is here to see me. I need to perform for them.” She decided to keep trying and eventually, she found success. I felt the tears spill over my eyelids and down my cheeks; to hear the story from her added a sense of reality that I had yet to feel that night. Her soft, kind face turned harsh when she began to convey her feelings about the terrible incident that ruined her life. She told us about people hanging up on her when she calls them because they interpret her speech impediment as some kind of a prank call. Everywhere she goes people stare at her like she is a freak, just because she has a slight paralysis on her right side. Up until that point I hadn’t even noticed that her right arm hung a little awkwardly or that she favored her left foot. The longer she spoke the harder it became to maintain my composure, and I wasn’t the only one. A girl in the corner was sobbing uncontrollably, and I watched as a counselor went over to her and escorted her out of the room and into the hallway. Marcella’s obvious pain reverberated throughout the room and collided with the empathy we felt for her, creating an environment that was so physically and emotionally intense that I almost couldn’t stand to be in it any longer. “I could have been the prom queen,” she said. “I could have been the pretty, popular girl in school, but because of someone’s devastating decision, I never had that opportunity.” I surrendered to my emotions and let the tears slide down my face without embarrassment or reservations as a quiet sob escaped my lungs. She finished her presentation with a caution about driving under the influence and a reminder that someone’s decisions never affect them alone, there is always a domino effect that follows. After the crowd’s complete silence throughout the presentation, the echoing of the applause for Marcella was practically deafening.

The majority of the room was crying and those who weren’t had looks of pure trauma on their faces. My right hand was held by Ciarra, my closest friend on the retreat. We had joined hands at some point during Marcella’s story and had yet to let go. I had been sitting with my knees to my chest, curled into a tight ball, and as I relinquished my position the rush of blood to my circulation-deprived legs was so fast that it was almost painful. I looked at my hands and saw that three of my fingers bore large indents where I wore my rings. My hands had been clenched so tightly that my jewelry had been forced into my flesh to the point that my bones hurt.

Before this presentation, I had brushed off the many warnings I had received from assistant principles Chad Stewart and Kim Stiffler that tonight would be one of the most difficult I had ever encountered. But now, the pain and sorrow I was feeling was so intense that I was almost completely numb, both physically and mentally, and I was forced to admit that I had been cocky in my assumptions about the evening.

I was actually scared of the last presenter, a short, bearded man name Jason. I couldn’t imagine how any story could be worse than the one I had just heard, but as the intensity of the night seemed to be ever increasing, I was sure that his story would be the most touching of them all. Jason took a deep breath, a sip from his water bottle and reached into his bag for a school photo of a fifteen-year-old boy named Aaron. He spoke very highly of the boy, of his leadership and football skills. He explained that Aaron had a little sister who worshiped him, as any younger sibling looks up to their brother or sister. I knew that the climax of the story was fast approaching, where Aaron’s life would be cut short. However, I was not prepared for the twist that went with it. Aaron had an older brother as well, whom he admired just as his sister admired him. That brother was the presenter standing before me. Looking back, I feel like I should have seen it coming, but at the time I was blindsided. Jason pulled out a third photo, this one of just him and Aaron, laughing in a cramped photo booth at Scandia. He said that this photo was disturbing for two reasons. First, because it was the last picture of Aaron ever taken, only a few days before the crash. Second, because it was taken with the drunk driver who killed him. He looked straight into my eyes as he spoke those last few words and the whole room seemed to freeze around me. My throat closed up and the knots in my stomach squeezed tighter and tighter until I felt that I would be sick. Just like the rest of the people in the room, tears poured from my eyes and there soon was a small mountain of tissues sitting on the table to my side. Sob after sob built up in my chest and I couldn’t bear to hear anything else. I was shaking uncontrollably and despite my many efforts, I was incapable of moving from my position. The rest of Jason’s story was recounted the next day to the greater student body. It was no easier to hear it then than it was when he was standing only a few feet in front of me.

The majority of the room was crying and those who weren’t had looks of pure trauma on their faces.

Next we were instructed to take a packet of paper and a pen and find a quiet corner to write a letter to our families. Writing to my parents was not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. My emotions had been pushed farther in the last few hours than ever before, and I had reached the point of nothingness. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t think. After completing our notes we all gathered in a circle on the floor, the only light coming from the candle. Mr. Stewart told us that when the candle was passed to us, we could say anything we needed or wanted to about what we had experienced that day.

One after the next, people tried to put into words what they were feeling. As my turn slowly approached, the enormity of the day crashed down on me. I was happy to be numb; numbness was preferable to pain. But like an avalanche I was hit with a rush of emotion so strong that I couldn’t isolate any single one long enough identify it. My skin was tingling, my breaths were shallow and quick, my head was spinning, and I couldn’t concentrate on what anyone was saying. The last of my energy was going towards holding myself together, and I couldn’t manage anything more than that until Claudia, who had been the crash scene victim airlifted from the school, requested permission to read her favorite poem by Chelsi Holland. The poem managed to encompass everything I had felt that night and knowing that someone, somewhere, had the words I couldn’t find, served as a great comfort.

“Surprises at every stop sign, with its share of wrong ways and dead-ends. Statistics don’t help you with the future, they only tell you where you’ve been. With so many people among us, there are no certainties. And all it takes is just one person, to reroute history. Don’t waste one single moment, how very precious that they are. What seems a long way off is really not that far.”


Written by Joel Abrahams & Racine Cermak. This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of the Tam News.