Before he was an attorney prosecuting DUIs, La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board President Dan Jeffries worked on an ambulance crew while he was in college and law school. He witnessed, first hand, often tragic results of drunk driving.
Today and Friday, La Cañada High School students again will experience the “Every 15 Minutes” program, a simulated rendition of the type of carnage that Jeffries used to encounter regularly in real life. The idea, organizers say, is to heighten awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence right before the senior year-end festivities surrounding prom and graduation.
“One of the first and most significant calls was two young guys who’d left a fraternity party on a motorcycle and crashed,” Jeffries said. “The driver was fine, but the passenger, his buddy, was lying face-down, unconscious, and the driver came up to me, ‘He’s going to be OK, isn’t he?’ And I thought, ‘Wow, you have no idea what you just did.’ I was a kid myself, and it was really scary what people driving under the influence can do.
“So I really do find programs like this extremely important,” Jeffries continued. “To get the word out and teach some of the kids: Think ahead and maybe you won’t be making that bad decision.”
He said he hopes parents will be open to discussing the event with their children at home and that they’ll reinforce its all-too-important message: Do not drink and drive.
For the past eight months, a team of LCHS and local law enforcement personnel have worked to prepare for this week’s “Every 15 Minutes” event, which was to begin Wednesday evening, with an hourlong panel discussion and presentation for parents.
That was to be followed Thursday morning’s simulation in front of the school. The faux wreck will include local sheriff’s deputies, fire and paramedic personnel, all performing as they would during the aftermath of a tragic collision, all to provide students with a front-row seat similar to the one Jeffries had once.
Eighteen students have been selected to participate in the additional simulation, which will tour a courthouse, a jail and a cemetery before rejoining their peers Friday morning at an assembly where a “memorial service” will be enacted, complete with a coffin, pallbearers and eulogies.
“Even if you only reach a few kids, it’s well worth it,” Jeffries said. “But I think we’re reaching a lot more than a few of the kids.”
LCHS last staged the event in 2015. It’s doing so again with the help of grants from the California Highway Patrol and the California Office of Traffic Safety, according to Chris Roberts, secretary to assistant principal Mary Hazlett. They’re helping to coordinate the event, along with sheriff’s liaison, Dep. Eric Matejka, CHP Officer Ryan Bejar and campus security director Tanya Wilson.
“I, in no way, condone kids drinking,” Matejka said. “But this is something where if we save one or two people or stop them from hitting someone or causing bodily injury, it’s really beneficial.”
Said Hazlett: “This is not meant to scare everybody. It’s meant to say: This is serious, this isn’t just one clique, there are a lot of groups thinking this is a part of the high school experience, whether that’s stress-relief or not, let’s talk about that … what are healthy ways to work through stress, anxiety and all these things where people have poor coping mechanisms like alcohol? We hope it sparks deeper conversation about big issues.”
And, again, please don’t get behind the wheel if you’re drunk.
“There’s an easy, socially acceptable alternative now,” Jeffries said. “Uber and Lyft and the other ride services are phenomenal for that.”
Jeffries has spent most of his career prosecuting DUIs for the City of Los Angeles. He likes the work, he said, because it’s the rare prosecution where, most often, there is agreement.
“Both sides really want to do what’s right,” Jeffries said. “If the person needs to be in an alcohol program, it’s really important they get into that treatment program. And they all agree people should not drink and drive, that they should not have driven, and most of the time, being arrested and going through the process is enough to convince them never to do it again and we never see them again.
“Unfortunately, though, sometimes the consequences are tragic. It’s one thing if they’re driving and get stopped, it’s another thing if they’ve killed or injured someone.”
Jeffries has compassion for the vast majority of those he prosecutes.
“They’re not bad people, they’re people who made a mistake in judgment, who made a decision to drive at a time they shouldn’t have been driving,” he said. “And, for the most part, they’re a cross-section of everyone, from all walks of life.”
Including, sometimes, teens.
Since its inception in the 1990s in Chico, the “Every 15 Minutes” program has been staged at schools, seeking to dissuade young drivers from getting behind the wheel if they’ve been drinking. At the program’s inception, a drunk-driving related crash killed someone about every 15 minutes. That statistic has changed, Jeffries said, so that it’s now about one every 30 minutes, a trend in the right direction.
“The big thing is if we can get the people who see the program to think, ‘Hey, this is something bad that happens, I saw the whole process,’” said Matejka. “Maybe I’ll call an Uber or call a parent or get a ride.”