Ryan Axe flashes a few pictures of his family on the big screen in front of his students.
“Now, all of you have seen my family more than my brother ever did, and my brother was my best friend,” he says.
It’s a chilling moment as students realize that Axe — principal at Warwick High School — is talking about a young man killed by one poor driving decision.
“He was in an accident in 1997,” Axe explains in a telephone interview. “He and his fiancee were out at a couple of places, and on the way home they were in an accident. They both passed away.”
“He was not a heavy drinker or anything like that,” he says. “He wasn’t even behind the wheel at the time. But he did make the choice to get in that car.”
Axe’s brother was only 23 — just a few years out of school — when he died. At this time of year, Axe and other school officials want to make sure students realize that one bad decision can have life-altering effects.
“It’s a sad truth,” says Mike Simpson, a teacher at Lancaster Country Day School. “But there’s a prom-to-graduation corridor ... when hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kids across this country are going to get into terrible, terrible car accidents, and they’re going to suffer pretty serious physical consequences.”
Students on prom night might be excited. Distracted by their date. Eager to text a friend to tell them how things went. Or maybe they stopped at a post-prom party and had too much to drink.
None of that combines well with driving.
According to the Department of Transportation, more than 5,000 teens are injured or killed nationwide during a typical prom weekend. While most of the accidents are alcohol related, teens who aren’t drinking are still at risk if they’re on the road.
Simpson, too, has a personal story to share with students.
It was five or six years ago, he says, and he and his wife were driving home from a dinner party in separate cars.
“A 16-year-old kid who had been drinking and who had marijuana paraphenalia in the car ... got confused at the intersection and plowed into my wife,” Simpson says. “His car was totaled, my wife’s car was totaled. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.
“But there was about a 15-second period of time when I had no idea what I would find while I ran to my wife’s car.”
School officials countywide are taking steps to ensure that prom-to-graduation corridor is a safe one for local students.
“The biggest danger teens face on prom night is auto accidents, either because the driver has been drinking or is simply distracted by a carload of exuberant pals,” according to an article posted on Education.com.
In Lancaster County, some schools stage dramatic crash scenes, complete with wrecked cars, emergency responders and, in some cases, the bloody bodies of classmates.
“It’s very graphic. It’s very dramatic,” says Warwick spokeswoman Lori Zimmerman.
The event at Warwick last week was cancelled because of heavy rain, but Zimmerman says they usually hold the event fairly often.
“Throughout the students’ high school years, they’ll be exposed to it at least once,” she says.
Axe, who shares his brother’s story at various schools, says his focus is on choices his brother and his fiancee made that night.
“We try to stay away from saying every choice you make is bad — the negative side of it,” he says. “But there are a lot of adults here in our community that really care about them.”
Teens need to remember, he says, that their decisions affect friends and family, too.
“We try to make it hit home,” he says. “The hope is that you get those kids who are in that gray area, who are thinking about maybe making a mistake. You share that personal story, and they realize that it’s not a good choice.”
• Simpson says Country Day takes a different avenue.
“Kids begin to get turned off if you show them too many prom-night disaster movies,” he says.
“We’ve had some success trying to create a dialogue.”
Country Day doesn’t want students to feel “patronized or spoken down to,” he says. “Fundamentally speaking, when kids experiment with drugs and alcohol, they open themselves up to certain dangers that they don’t open themselves up to if they don’t. It’s pretty cut and dried.”
The heart of the message “is not to frighten them. It’s not to trick them,” Simpson says. “It’s a statistical truth.”
It’s pretty easy to remove yourself from that statistic, he says. Just keep three rules in mind.
• Don’t consume drugs or alcohol.
• Don’t get in a car with someone who has used drugs and alcohol.
• If you’re stuck, call someone.
“We can talk about statistics as much as you want to. I can try to scare you,” Simpson says. “But statistically, something bad ultimately will happen if you put yourself in those situations.”
A post last year on the blog site SaveYourTeenDriver.com notes that car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in America and, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, teens are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as older drivers.
According to recent statistics, fewer than a third of drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 who were involved in fatal crashes over the course of a year involved alcohol.
There are other reasons prom night can be dangerous.
“Prom-bound drivers are relatively inexperienced drivers,” says the article by Robert Ragazzo. “Add to that the understandable excitement of the evening. Too often, teenage drivers are distracted — by cell phones, loud music or a stunning date who looks like he or she just stepped off the cover of a fashion magazine. They’re focused on just about everything except driving.”
According to a fact sheet issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, teenage drivers a junior license may not be behind the wheel between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.; exceptions are made for work or charitable service, the DMV notes, but not for prom.
The number of passengers in the car can’t exceed the number of seat belts, and a junior license holder may not carry more than one passenger under the age of 18 who isn’t an immediate family member unless a parent or guardian is in the car; that number increases to three after six months of driving without a driving violation.
Most school districts in Lancaster County have something going on to spotlight the perils of prom night.
Richard Hornberger, assistant superintendent for Ephrata, says prom-night safety is a yearly focus.
“It’s a life choice, but obviously prom season is a highlight,” he says.
Programs for students include a driving simulator, once while wearing vision-impaired goggles to simulate intoxication, again while texting “just to see what happens.”
“It’s fun for the kids, but at the same time it makes them aware of the dangers of distracted driving,” Hornberger says.
Later in May, the district will run an “Every 15 Minutes” program, which highlights the fact that someone is killed by a drunk driver every quarter-hour.
The event will include a mock accident and first responders, along with five students who will play out the accident and “die” in the crash.
“It’s very emotional. It reaches the kids,” Robinson says.
At Pequea Valley High School, Aftan Fisher says the Prom Promise Campaign, organized through Peer Helpers, includes daily stats about distracted driving during the morning announcements for two weeks, a fundraiser for Students Against Destructive Decisions and a video about smart prom choices.
Keith Kaufman, director of communications for Solanco, says the district yearly employs Act Out Loud, a program to “alert students to the dangers of distracted driving and driving under the influence of alcohol.”
Activities in Solanco include a mock crash and an impaired driving simulator.