New Mexico Military students experienced the Every 15 Minutes program for the first time on Friday morning.
Sirens wailed, grim reapers roamed around the accident, and law enforcement and the fire department enacted their typical responses to a car crash.
“We do these programs each year in the hopes of at least reaching one young person and their families,” Diane Taylor, Chaves County DWI prevention specialist, said. “The death rate with fatalities due to texting, alcohol, prescription drugs, nonprescription drugs — the highest rate is from (ages) 16 to 24. This program to sum it up is education and awareness. Our goal is to try to change attitudes in order to change behaviors for the positive outcomes.”
Student “victims” and their families are chosen to participate to simulate a fatal accident caused by driving under the influence. Before the “victims” were escorted to the crash, Taylor said they were selected because other cadets saw them as leaders and the responsibility of a leader is to speak out when they notice risky behavior.
During the program, participants cannot speak to anyone and are also forbidden to eat or drink in front of family or peers during the program. Since they are symbolically deceased, their faces are painted white with black eyes and are given an Every 15 minutes T-shirt.
“These kids have no idea what was happening when they went to class today,” Taylor said. “Just like when you wake up in the morning — you don’t know what the day is going to hold. Nobody plans to be killed, to be permanently injured, or to kill another innocent person but that’s what happens.”
Tricia Hart, Field Deputy Medical Investigator, is the county representative for the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI). Hart said she had been participating in the program since 2007.
“I do this program because I am tired of putting teenagers in body bags for senseless acts,” she said. “I was actually putting a teenager in a body bag on an actual scene and the sheriff’s deputy at that time told me about the program and asked me if he wanted to help. Without hesitation, I jumped in and I have been doing it ever since.”
Salido Alejandri and Humberto Cantu, two NMMI students from Mexico, shared their perspective on the program with the Daily Record.
“It was a real surprise to see the cars and all of the cadets laying on the ground,” said Alejandri. “We expected it to be something like this but we didn’t know how real they were going to make it. It really like hits you — and makes you think about accidents and how things can happen without you expecting them. Watching one of my friends over there in the car makes you realize that it can happen to anybody at anytime.”
Alejandri, 18, said he does not imbibe, but this program encouraged him to be more careful while driving and to encourage his friends to do the same. Cantu, 21, said he has been supporting a friend who was in a fatal car accident where his best friend died.
“Just be alert,” Cantu said. “Know who is driving and drinking.”
A mother, Christina Nunez said her 19-year-old son, Dominic, participated as a victim on the crime scene. Nunez said this program was emotional for her and that driving is taken for granted by teens and adults, who do not realize their lives could change in the blink of an eye.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” Nunez said with tears in her eyes. “I was thinking he was going to be the kid being arrested — so when I walked up and saw him on the floor and he’s getting ready to be body bagged — it took my breath away.”
“It’s an eye-opener not just for kids but adults and people in general. If you drink and drive this is what happens. It was very impactful as a parent — as a human being. Nobody wants to bury their child like that.”
Addressing that the example starts with parents making good choices, Taylor said parents dream of their children having bright futures and attending life events like weddings and graduations, not visiting their incarcerated or injured children.
“All of these crashes are not accidents, they are crashes,” Taylor said. “An accident you can prevent. A crash due to alcohol, drugs or texting and cellphone use (are) 100 percent preventable. Just don’t do it. Make the right choice.”
City reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.