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Mock accident sheds harsh light on tragedy

GROTON — By all appearances it looked like one of those terrible accidents often seen in the news involving teenagers, automobiles and alcohol.

Two vehicles in a head-on collision leave pools of oil and transmission fluid in the road and bodies thrown from the cars to lie prone and lifeless on hoods and windshields. Where moments before the squeal of brakes echoed through the neighborhood, now only the sobs of a girl behind the steering wheel and the moans of the injured could be heard.

The distant wail of a siren echoes, a police car pulls up to the scene and an officer gives first aid and encouraging words. At last, ambulances appear and the delicate work of extracting the injured from the two vehicles begins.

White sheets discretely hide the dead from view while rescue crews go to work prying apart bent metal and helping victims onto waiting stretchers.

The good news is that this was merely staged for the benefit of students at Groton-Dunstable Regional District High School. The bad news is that the scene has become all too familiar on the nation’s roads and highways where drivers and alcohol come together in a toxic mix that often leaves young people crippled or dead.

“Demonstrations like this are just great,” said police Chief Robert Mulhern. “It lets kids see that there are consequences to their actions.

“Groton has as much of a problem with drinking and driving as any other community,” he said “There’s a direct correlation between drinking and driving, so anything we can do in a proactive way to reduce accidents, the better for everyone in the community, especially high school students.”

Nodding to the hundreds of juniors and seniors that gathered beside the high school parking lot to witness the crash demonstration, Mulhern hoped the lesson would not be lost on them.

“This is supposed to be the best time of their lives,” Mulhern said. “And it shouldn’t be ruined in a senseless accident.”

Mulhern and the students gathered in the high school parking lot on April 11 to witness a realistic recreation of a typical crash scene involving teenagers and alcohol. Two vehicles had been arranged as if having suffered a head-on collision with students acting as victims.

While some remained in one of the cars moaning in pain or crying out in fear, others lay sprawled in bloody heaps outside the vehicles where their bodies had apparently been thrown through the windshield of one of the cars.

Behind the demonstration were University of Massachusetts, Lowell, nursing students Brendan VanCorbach and Ellen Stinehelfer. The two arranged the event as part of a project required for their degree program.

“Last semester we did a community assessment of Groton,” explained VanCorbach. “This semester, we had a chance to follow up and do something to help the health of the community.”

After analyzing data made available from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the two students decided that drunken driving was a concern they wanted to address.

VanCorbach said he had the idea to hold an accident scene demonstration from one he saw when he was a student at Chelmsford High School.

“We found that there was a high rate of vehicle accidents in the area, but they weren’t specifically alcohol-related,” reported VanCorbach.

Of all motor vehicle accidents in the state, he said 10 percent resulted in fatalities.

“It’s relatively low,” said community policing liaison officer Sgt. Cathi Welch.

Welch guessed there could not have been more than two alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents in Groton in the last year, but two was more than enough.

“We’re hoping that this demonstration will help diminish the frequency of such accidents,” she said.

“This is the first time we’re doing it (at Groton-Dunstable),” said the Police Department’s School Resource Officer, Paul Connell, who acted as the first person on the scene during the demonstration. “The whole point of doing it is to bring (the danger of drinking and driving) home to the students.”

“I hope that the students are able to realize from the demonstration the varying consequences of drinking and driving, the deaths, the crippling injuries, the lives destroyed and even the legal liabilities,” said VanCorbach. “I hope that after viewing the demonstration, they will choose better methods of getting home if they go out drinking, like choosing a designated driver.”

Tuesday’s demonstration lasted for almost 45 minutes with full crews of fire, police and EMT personnel on hand to “rescue” the victims of the “accident,” which included a half-dozen student actors.

When the accident portion of the event was over, students were encouraged to ask questions and offer comments on the notion of drinking and driving. Also offered were grim statistics on the subject.

Stinehelfer said she and VanCorbach conducted surveys before and after the demonstration. She hoped the school would use their findings to continue with an alcohol awareness program and annual crash demonstration after their own project is concluded.

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