Press "Enter" to skip to content

Can scaring kids to death keep them alive?


As the first class period begins at a local high school, some staged tragic events — prepared through months of careful planning —will begin to unfold.

Over the next hours the “Grim Reaper,” cloaked in black and carrying a scythe, will roam the hallways, pulling students from classrooms at fifteen-minute intervals to represent “one person killed every fifteen minutes by a drunk-driving accident.” 

Each victim’s eulogy will be read aloud by a police deputy, as classmates listen in stunned silence. Later, the twenty “Living Dead” will return to their classes, bearing white face paint and coroner’s tags, and they will remain silent for the rest of the day. Their obituaries will be posted in the school foyer, their gravestones will be erected in the courtyard.

In the midst of it all, local emergency services personnel will simulate a fatal car accident in the school parking lot while students play the roles of drunk drivers and casualties, “bleeding” with gory makeup. A 911 call will be broadcast over the public address system, and sirens will wail as fire trucks, ambulances, and hearses respond to the scene. This is only the first act of an elaborate two-day event known as “Every 15 Minutes”—often called “E15M” for short—in which staged tragedy is produced in an effort to cement a lifelong aversion to drunk driving in the minds of high school students.

These wildly creative, sometimes disturbing reenactments exemplify a trend in educational settings: communities across the country stage various gruesome dramas, aimed at transforming teenagers’ attitudes and behavior. These days, versions of E15M often come with other titles (e.g., “Prom Promise”) and may incorporate the more recent threat of texting and driving as youth culture has evolved and drunk driving enforcement has increased.

Like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) or the Scared Straight programs, proponents believe society has an obligation to warn young people about the consequences of risky and illegal behaviors. But for the high emotional and monetary expenditure of these events, their effectiveness remains a subject of ongoing debate.


The staged tragedy of Every 15 Minutes takes place against a backdrop of real carnage on American highways. Drunk-driving fatalities, as well as public concern about the problem, have been tracked over the years by various government, academic, and advocacy groups. Alarming statistics are easy to find;  in fact, the quantity and range of sources of information can be daunting. Countless websites trumpet the “cold, hard, sobering facts” (as AlcoholAlert.com puts it) about the deadly toll drunk driving takes. 

However, the real statistics are confounding and do not necessarily correspond to the rhetoric sometimes deployed. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA),  alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes kill someone approximately every forty-five (not fifteen) minutes. This is still a troubling figure, and NHTSA states “car crashes are a leading cause of death for teens, and about a quarter of fatal crashes involve an underage drinking driver.”

The program’s catchy title, based on a 1980s statistic, persists despite improvements in the numbers. Organizers told me that a current and more accurate statistic “wouldn’t hit home the same way” that the number fifteen did.

But the Every 15 Minutes program has been promoted as a way to achieve two goals at once — shaking up teenagers who “think they are immortal” and providing a training drill for the emergency personnel. Simulations of real-life activities may be rehearsals that serve various purposes. The facilitators of E15M’s mock traumatic scenes rely heavily on special effects, costuming, and theatrics.

They design these cautionary demonstrations to include numerous professional and personal touches, all intended to make the proceedings feel more real.

The theatrical, creative, and even “fun” elements are specific to the E15M program. These elements would likely not be acceptable or celebrated in the context of today’s ubiquitous mass shooting simulations, which seek more to prepare kids for potential emergencies and trauma, and less to influence their beliefs and values.

Enormous resources of time, money, energy, and emotion go into Every 15 Minutes’ dramatic reenactment of drunk driving tragedy. It includes months of planning, full-scale EMS operations, helicopter evacuations for critically injured “victims,” tours of prisons, courthouses, and morgues, and video crews documenting the action.

“The more you make it look real, the more realistic people will act,” a local Air Force disaster-drill specialist (recruited by the school for his makeup expertise) told me. He carefully placed a plastic severed hand near a “victim” who lay prone by the accident scene. Then he busied himself setting up burning canisters to create billows of smoke around the wreckage. 

But hitting just the right dramatic tone is not easy, one policeman pointed out, remembering an instance where things got a bit out of hand. “We tell [the drunk driver] to resist a little when he gets arrested, but last year he did a little too much and officers slammed him on the hood of the car. ‘Next year,’ we said, ‘resist, but not too much!’

But program organizers often face a major challenge – getting teenagers to take it seriously. 


As a drunk-driving-prevention tactic, the program has spread with astonishing momentum since the early 1990s; but it is not nationally organized or sponsored, and it has neither a precise origin nor one “official” version. Replicated and modified in hundreds of communities around the country, Every 15 Minutes is collaboratively produced by schools, law enforcement, and community volunteers.

I have come to understand this contemporary American tradition in the terms of its enactors, who, as they explained their aesthetic and logistical choices to me, repeatedly asserted, “It’s a drama!” The production of Every 15 Minutes stages tragedy as “realistically” as possible at the same time as it captures participants’ imagination and attention with the dramatic elements of costuming and playacting.

In Every 15 Minutes, especially during climactic moments, many role-players and spectators weep—on cue, spontaneously, or somewhere in between. In the standard scenario, one student role-player is rushed from the crash scene to the hospital, where she flatlines and dies in the presence of her parents (who exhibit reactions of despair and hysteria, though aware it is a simulation). The Living Dead are secluded overnight at a remote location. Seated at tables stocked with boxes of Kleenex, they must write letters to their parents “from the grave.” 

The next day, at the mock funeral and assembly (ostensibly the cathartic moment of the program), students are reunited with their families and they read their letters in public, often breaking into tears.

Participants describing the program attribute great importance to following the planned scenario; they devote hours of meetings to hashing out the details of the script, the graphic detail of the images, the rules to be followed by those “playing” in the drama, and decisions about which students get to play key roles. However, during the actual two-day event, things rarely go according to plan.

After-the-fact accounts from organizers rarely mention the kind of out-bursts and teasing that I have witnessed each time I have followed the Grim Reaper on his rounds, nor do they describe the distracted and rowdy audiences at assemblies. Overt skepticism can easily detract from the general mood; spectators “not taking the program seriously” dishearten those students who invest themselves in the role-play. 

However, I have never seen mockery or dissent result in a judgment that the program had “failed.” In fact, at times, uncontrolled moments led to memorable breaks in the script, and gripping effects. At a suburban Maryland school, the Living Dead complained bitterly about the response they got from students and teachers throughout the day. Teachers continued to talk or play videotapes while the Grim Reaper pulled students from their classrooms; kids jeered and provoked them in the hallways as they went through their day mute and white-faced. Hecklers called out to the cloaked figure:

“He’s a monk!”

“He’s Darth Vader!”

“Yeah, Grim Reaper!” [fist pumping]

Rules were discarded right and left. After months of preparation and anticipation, one Living Dead boy skipped school on the big day. A parent waited at home all day for a death notification that never came. The police department’s E15M coordinator was particularly disturbed to find out at the last minute that two of the Living Dead had received special permission to come back to life for an important baseball game that afternoon, thanks to their coach’s political influence over the principal.

Even those who are most invested in the play (including school administrators and law-enforcement officials) frequently deviate from the script or the rules. Accidents, oversights, improvisations, subversions, and deliberate sabotage constantly interrupt the smooth progression of events. Despite all this, in the end, organizers consistently judge the play a hit.

But the range of responses to the performance is wider than many administrators acknowledge; while students participate in the simulated grieving, others express skepticism, outrage, indifference, or amusement.


Drunk-driving fatalities, as well as public concern over the problem, have been tracked over the years by various government, academic, and advocacy groups.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been tracking fatal crashes involving intoxicated drivers for decades and has noted a significant and steady decline which is likely attributed to a multitude of factors including tougher legislation, changes in demographics, and declines in alcohol consumption per capita.

But during the course of my fieldwork, I observed educators, drunk-driving prevention advocates, and often journalists who were concerned less with accuracy than with communicating to teenagers the most “impactful” statements possible. This approach is also common in other popular programs like D.A.R.E. and Scared Straight.

Proponents of these programs usually tout their effectiveness based on the chance that they might influence even one student to refrain from drinking and driving (or using drugs, or violent behavior). But selective reporting of findings, media’s representation of questionable research results, masking of detrimental program effects, and limited or skewed samples of participants are problematic.

My extensive investigation of how these programs have been evaluated convinced me that there is no definitive answer to the question of what has worked, or what could work better, to reduce teenage drunk-driving fatalities.

Amid the drunk-driving drama’s attendant emotional expressions, threats, moral discourse, real grieving, boredom, and hunger for attention, it’s hard to tell what and whether people are really learning. Imprisoned by the tedious rules and routines of school and workplace, they might express enthusiasm simply at the prospect of escaping class for a few hours.

The E15M phenomenon puts a dark-play twist on that escape. Its players are released from obscurity and monotony into a mock ordeal in which they actually do go to jail—or to the hospital in a body bag, or to their own funerals. It is ambiguous, paradoxical, competitive, slippery, and appealing to darker impulses that are normally considered inappropriate or dangerous.

It doesn’t require that every participant be fully engrossed or ultimately transformed. It only requires that enough people have enough fun — in their own intimately complex ways — to want to invite the Reaper back next year.

Even a nurse working at the admitting desk in the hospital emergency room (where she witnesses real trauma every day) breathed an ambiguous sigh as the Living Dead victim expired in the next room: “Are they having fun? They look like they’re having fun. I wish I was a part of that.”

This essay is a modified excerpt from Dr. Montana Miller’s “Playing Dead: Mock Trauma and Folk Drama in Staged High School Drunk Driving Tragedies” published by the University Press of Colorado. Miller is an associate professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University.





Source link

Mission News Theme by Compete Themes.