'It’s not if; it’s when': OHRH, emergency agencies partner for impaired driving prevention event

Though no major events were taking place at the Owensboro Sportscenter on Wednesday morning, a stream of emergency responders from Owensboro Police Department, firefighters with the Owensboro Fire Department and American Medical Response rushed to the parking lot with flashing lights and all.

It was a scene seen often — a two-vehicle collision with one turned on its side as a result of impaired driving. Even Air Evac Lifeteam touched ground on the grass with whooshing propellers to take someone to seek immediate medical attention.

However, the accident, extrication and rescue efforts carried out by first responders was a simulation hosted by the Owensboro Health Regional Hospital to show students from Owensboro Catholic High School about what can occur when someone who’s impaired from drugs or alcohol makes the decision to get behind the steering wheel.

The simulation was part of the “Ghost Out” program, an impaired driving prevention event developed and sponsored by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s Office of Highway Safety, in order to bring a physically tangible role play to students while also helping them understand the potential consequences that can result from “alcohol-involved, drug-involved or (even more today) distracted driving,” according to Adam Johnston, retired officer with the Owensboro Police Department.

“This is a program that we host at all the high schools each year, once a year, to help deter that,” Johnston said. “We usually try to have it around prom because we know that’s one of the best chances that’s going to happen.

“We show (the students) what’s going on so that we can see the effects of bad decisions.”

The faux scene itself was regarding prom night, where one of the drivers was underage and impaired while driving his date and other friends to the venue when the driver collided with another car, resulting in injuries and fatalities.

Deuce Sims, an OCHS senior, played the role of the impaired driver in which he wore “drunk goggles” to portray the part accurately. However, his involvement in the scene was not something he was prepared for.

“They didn’t give us any heads-up,” Sims, 18, said. “We were just in the middle of class and the police came and knocked on the door and said, ‘Every 30 seconds, there is a drunk driving accident; and today, I was the one who died’ and they pulled me out of class.’ ”

Mike Mixson, OHRH’s director of trauma services, said the simulation is kept “under wraps” for months in order to get a realistic reaction and becomes something that leaves a lasting impression.

“That shock factor, if you will, … makes an imprint on us,” he said, “and if we can provide that initial imprint, that recollection of that memory comes back a lot easier.”

Johnston, who was with OPD for two decades, worked as part of the crash reconstruction unit since 2006 responding to “fatal or near-fatal crashes.” Throughout those 14 years, Johnston said it was never easy when arriving at a site.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times the person that died is the driver and you’re not going to get a statement out of them as to what happened,” he said. “It (was) our job to go back and investigate, and look at roadway evidence and body injuries to try (and) figure out what exactly happened during the crash.”

Mixson finds involving students like Sims as actors makes the situation more life-like.

“We always know if there’s not a personal connection, then there’s an easy disconnect,” he said. “The fact that we have a personal connection (in knowing) the folks that were involved, it ties it into their reality a lot easier.”

Mixson and Johnston said situations like this happen “way more often than we actually realize.”

“Last year, over 5,000 teen drivers died in motor vehicle collisions; and 29% of those had positive blood alcohol levels,” Mixson said. “So even though we have no tolerance for underage drinking, that still happens and that’s a major contributor to motor vehicle collisions.”

“... A lot of people nowadays have the mindset that they’re invincible — ‘It’s not gonna happen to me;’ but I can tell you the hundreds of (fatal and near-fatal) crashes that I’ve worked over the years, it’s gonna happen. It’s not if; it’s when,” Johnston said. “We need to make it as real as possible to show them that it can happen to you and that it can happen here.

“You might be the best driver in the world; it’s the other person you have to worry about ….”

Besides those impaired can be hurt or killed, Mixson said situations similar to this affect others, sometimes severely.

“... (Those in) the other car that were involved in this simulation weren’t drinking, but they were heavily impacted,” he said.

Following the scene, Johnston said the students were to attend an assembly in the afternoon that would recap the simulation and would include obituaries of those who died to be read aloud.

“When (the students) see the pictures and they read the obituaries, I think it’s really gonna hit home,” he said. “When you talk about ‘survived by the brothers, and sisters and loved ones,’ that’s (really) the impactful part.”

Mixson finds having events like “Ghost Out” can help emphasize the reality of what can occur if one decides to put themselves and others at risk.

“…Trauma care goes beyond just taking care of injured patients in the emergency department or in the hospital; and part of what trauma centers are charged with is injury prevention and community outreach,” he said. “This is a way we can help bring awareness especially before prom, but really (at) anytime to teenagers driving to let them know that this reality is there.

“This is a real thing that can happen; and if we can avoid this, then our job is made a lot easier.”

Sims hopes his peers understood the severity of what could occur when not considering the consequences of one’s actions.

“For my own benefit and hopefully for all my classmates out here watching, (I hope) they can actually realize and see how risky and dangerous it is to underage drink and to drive along with it,” he said. “Hopefully, it wakes them up a little bit and we can continue to be better.”