Monday, May 19, 2014

Reefer Madness

The 1936 propaganda exploitation film Reefer Madness used sensational depictions of rape, murder and suicide to scare people away from trying cannabis. We now regard this movie as mockable -  marihuana alone clearly does not cause people to become psychopaths. Yet we continue this same laughable behavior in a different form today.

I do not expect to make friends with this topic.

The Every 15 Minutes mock DUI program:

It's a cheap shot to point out the bad EKGs used to advertise this program, but this only scratches the surface of the many things wrong with Every 15 Minutes.

What is Every 15 Minutes? 

The Every 15 Minutes mock DUI program uses horrific, phantasmagorical imagery of impossible volumes of blood splattered onto every internal and external surface of a mangled car, attended by moulaged youth actors and a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper, in order to induce emotional trauma in high school students with the goal of reducing the number of people killed by drunk drivers. A number of students, said to be similar to the number of people in America who die from alcohol related car crashes (not adjusted per capita), are pulled from class throughout the day, dressed in deathlike makeup, and are not permitted to speak with their peers. Local law enforcement officers read false eulogies for the dead teens, and make sham death notices to parents.

The Every 15 Minutes website claims this performance art offers "real-life experience without the real-life risks... to dramatically instill teenagers with the potentially dangerous consequences of drinking alcohol and texting while driving."
"During the most powerful program of the retreat, the students will be taken through an audio - visualization of their own death. Then each student will write a letter to his or her parents starting out with . . .
"'Dear Mom and Dad, every fifteen minutes someone in the United States dies from an alcohol related traffic collision, and today I died. I never had the chance to tell you.......'"
The mere title "Every 15 Minutes," alleging that one person in America dies every 15 minutes from a motor vehicle collision caused by drunk driving, couldn't be more deceitful. Using the numbers available from their own website, we find the actual time interval for relevant deaths in 2007 to be 40.44 minutes. In 2009, this number expanded to one death in 48.49 minutes. Even when the program began in 1995, using the most generous data and criteria, the number came to one every 30.43 minutes. I do not offer this to make light of the many thousands of people who are actually killed in drunk driving incidents every year, but you cannot offer a "real-life experience" when the foundation of your argument has been an exaggerated lie from the very beginning.
"During the first day events the "Grim Reaper" calls students who have been
selected from a cross-section of the entire student body out of class."

I have worked or volunteered in Emergency Services in various forms since 2001, received my EMT patch in 2004, and became a paramedic in 2008. While I haven't seen everything, I have been around the block, and I can only count on one hand the actual number of times the Grim Reaper has shown up on one of my scenes with a scythe, touching people with his cold, bony finger. That's actually a lie, I've never seen him.

Depicting Jesus and the angels carrying a deceased child's wayward soul off to heaven to care for him or her for all eternity would most definitely violate the separation of church and state, but somehow it's just fine for a dark, satanic demon figure to drag their mutilated ghost off to hell with a bladed farming implement. These mock crash scenes staged by the people responsible for the Every 15 Minutes program are nothing more than over the top, macabre fantasies closer resembling snuff films than actual traffic collisions.

Remember, this program claims to offer a "real-life experience." As a person who has worked hundreds of these scenes, I can tell you that even grinder, multiple-fatality crashes just don't have gallons upon gallons of blood pouring from dead bodies hanging out of every window. I have seen moose hit by trucks with less blood loss.  These grisly, hyperbolic portrayals are lies, and to perpetuate them as truths makes us liars. You might argue it's necessary to lie to young people in order to achieve a goal as noble as zero drunk driving deaths. You're still a liar.

Teens, while sometimes lacking in wisdom, cannot be underestimated in their intelligence. I can't dictate your personal ethics to you. Only you can decide if lying is an appropriate means of public education. The reality to consider here is that chickens often come home to roost, and when they do we will lose credibility. I submit that even if this practice were scientifically proven to work 100% of the time, we are still wrong to participate in these gruesome fabrications. Alas, we have evidence that it may not even work.

A 2000 study published in the American Journal of Health Studies titled Measuring the Effectiveness of a Community-Sponsored DWI Intervention for Teens found a temporary improvement in teens' attitudes toward drinking and driving following an Every 15 Minutes mock DUI, but no significant change in the actual behavior of drinking and driving.

Many of the young people and parents spectating at these events are put to tears by the dramatic scenes in these grim theatrical demonstrations of human suffering. While the scenes are not real, the emotions are. Yet we have scientific evidence that we may not even be making a tangible, positive difference in their lives. And despite a lack of evidence in support of these programs, we find it perfectly acceptable to cause emotional pain in a person because, well, we feel like we must do something.

Primum non nocere means first, do no harm. It is the original guiding principle of medicine to which we must now struggle to return. As much as it hurts to do nothing, sometimes that is exactly what we should do. I encourage schools and emergency services agencies to reconsider their participation in current mock DUI programs that use false imagery to incite fear and emotional trauma in their young students for the purpose of behavioral change.  Give the truth a chance, and implement fact-based programs so that we may instill positive morals into the next generation, allowing evidence to guide our decision making process.

Hopefully someday we can all look back at Every 15 Minutes in the same way we regard Reefer Madness.

Related: Sniff Test


  1. WOW.
    Ok, first of all, I've never heard of Reefer Madness till now. That was a thing! Crazy!
    Second, I'm glad I came from a small school and we never had DUI programs like that.

    This is fascinating to hear someone with real experience talk about this. With all their good intentions, the fact that they aren't using FACTS will come back to haunt them. Just like the Grim Reaper.

    Here's my theory- teens won't really change their attitude about something unless it affects them personally. People at that age have the "I'm invincible" and "it won't happen to me" mentality and go right back to what they were doing before. So unless they have a family member or something die in an alcohol related accident, I can't imagine them really thinking about the consequences of drinking and driving.

    And in that first picture with the mangled car and the bodies, perhaps there was a rain storm and it diluted all the blood, spread it out all over the road, and THEN the sun came back out and the people with the tarp came to the scene. Because that is a ridiculous amount of blood. Just trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. ;)

  2. Great argument against this type of "education". As a teacher of 23 years in two different school districts in a fairly rural area, I see another side to this not being effective. Simply put, when kids see this year after year it just becomes entertainment and another reason to get out of class. My current school only does it for Juniors & Seniors every two years, but the results are the same: kids standing around oohhhing and ahhhhing, pointing and snickering, non of them believing any of it would ever happen to them. Over 23 years of my career, I've seen far too many kids die from alcohol poisoning or wrecks and many from out right suicide. Even those events only change the rest of the student body for a brief time. Then they become "invincible" again. Thank you for your post.

    1. Thank you, sir. I appreciate your comment from your perspective as an educator. Your observations are consistent with mine: mock DUIs are an entertainment novelty for the students. It's an exciting activity for the drama kids, and a fun excuse for the rest to get out of class for an afternoon. Students love mock DUIs, and every year they ask for more.

      It seems really sick to me that a group of people would so emphatically desire to be lied to, and insist annually on being lied to more. It further disturbs me that so many adults, including those in the public safety professions, have no ethical hangups with lying to children as a means of attempted education.

      I wonder how many people would agree with implementing a sex education program wherein young men are taught that the vagina is filled with flesh dissolving acid and razor sharp teeth. This message would be just as ethical and truthful as the message of the Every 15 Minutes program, and I'm sure have a great impact on reducing teen pregnancy rates.


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