The accident wasn’t real, yet the sight hit Comstock Park High School students hard. Friends were inside mangled cars looking injured and lifeless, while firetrucks, ambulances and police officers rushed to the scene.
Junior Nick Turowski stepped out of one of the crashed cars. With a look of shock, he saw the results of his actions. A teenager was dead because he was texting while driving.
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“It was scary looking around and seeing everybody hurt, and it was all my fault,” said Nick of his role.
The message: just one careless moment behind the wheel can change your life and the lives of others forever. Distracted driving has long-term implications.
Several students joined local firefighters, public-safety officers, Kent County Prosecuting Attorney James Benison and Life Emergency Medical Service responders in staging a mock crash scene in the high school parking lot. A similar event was recently held at Northview High School.
At Comstock Park, About 350 students gathered to watch as responders worked to use tools to cut open windshields, car doors and hoods. Educators and public safety officers said they hope the event has a lasting impact, especially as students enter prom and graduation season. Common distractions are texting, applying makeup, singing and looking at something inside or outside of the car.
♥Accidents are the leading cause of death for adolescents age 15-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2013, 3,154 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the U.S. government website distraction.gov. This represents a 6.7 percent decrease in the number of fatalities recorded in 2012. Unfortunately, approximately 424,000 people were injured, which is an increase from the 421,000 people who were injured in 2012.
Staging a Tragedy
Students who took part in the project said they were surprised at how emotional they felt. Nick played the 17-year-old driver whose crash resulted in the death of a young woman, played by senior Rachael Nowak, and injuries to other teens, played by juniors Murphy Hodder, Matt Kingma, Evan Ciancio and Emily Macalka.
“The scariest thing was when my mom came up to me and was crying over me,” Rachael said.First-responders placed a sheet over Rachael, who was sprawled out on the high school lawn. Her mother, Christy Nowak, ran screaming to the scene.
“I didn’t realize how I would react,” said Christy Nowak. “It was so powerful… I’m shaking right now. It really makes you think about what you are doing in the car.”
At Northview, Don and Deb VanEssen also were surprised by their reaction to the simulated death of their daughter Audrey. After Deb enacted weeping over Audrey lying on the ground, she cried real tears as the drama’s distracted driver, Emily Barnes, was led away in handcuffs.
“It’s horrible to watch. We know all these kids,” said Deb, but added the exercise was invaluable for students. “The kids cannot grasp the severity of the situation.”
Coming a week before prom, and with the added drama of an Aero Med helicopter, the event was a powerful reminder of possible consequences, said senior Alyssa Elliott.
“It makes you think about what you do when you drive, and what you can do to prevent stuff like that,” Alyssa said. “Seeing your classmates you’ve grown up with, it hits you hard.”
Harsh Penalties for Driving Distracted
At Comstock Park, as at Northview, a mock funeral and trial in the auditorium followed the simulation event.
Real tears also came from Benison, who announced a six-year prison sentence for Nick. Benison won the 2010 Mothers Against Drunk Driving National Criminal Justice Prosecutor Award for his commitment in relentlessly prosecuting and convicting drunk drivers.
“That was one of the worst things that could happen to me, because it means I’ve prosecuted enough cases that it drew their attention,” he told students. “I’d be really, really happy if as a result of this today I never have to do it again.”
A six-year sentence for reckless driving resulting in death is not unrealistic, even if alcohol was not a factor, he said.
Principal Steve Gough told students that making smart decisions is crucial.
“I felt horrible for the students injured and for Nick — to see a person with a ton of potential make a frivolous decision that will change the course of his life.”
He gave students a key reminder: “Take care of each other.”
The program, “Driven to Distraction” is offered free to schools. It is coordinated by Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, the Plainfield Charter Township Fire Department and Kent County Sheriff’s Department.