Chatfield mock crash shows horrific consequences of distracted driving

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Larissa Martin, a member of the Chatfield SADD chapter, summarizes the dangers of distracted driving and urged her fellow students to put their cell phones away while driving.

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Members of the Chatfield Fire Department work to extract the “victims” of a mock crash staged at the Chatfield High School on May 3. The exercise was designed to show what might happen when teens drive with distractions and without being buckled up.

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Two Chatfield Ambulance crew members transport a mock crash “victim” from the accident scene to the ambulance for transport.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

What does it take?

The breaking of bones, the rending of flesh, a sheet pulled over eyes that no longer see.

“This is the closest to the real thing that they’ll get to see without it being the real thing. Some say that if someone in their family were to die in a crash, that then they would wear their seatbelt, but you can’t bring someone back,” stated Fillmore County Public Health Educator Brenda Pohlman. “Why do they have to wait until then?”

Pohlman summarized the clear May morning’s events, having just concluded a mock crash made possible through the cooperation of Chatfield High School’s (CHS) Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), Fillmore County Public Health, the Chatfield Police Department, Chatfield Fire Department and Chatfield Ambulance Service, as well as the Fillmore County Sheriff’s Department and Fillmore County Sheriff John DeGeorge.

The crash illustrated the effects of impaired or distracted driving as caused by a motorist under the influence of marijuana and using e-cigarettes having to deal suddenly with a deer leaping across the roadway – the driver, portrayed by junior Alexis Demorest, was listed as uninjured, the front seat passenger portrayed by Belle Berg was ejected from the vehicle and killed, a backseat passenger portrayed by Silja Erickson was seriously injured and the second backseat passenger, brought to pseudo-reality by Abbie Siewert, was less seriously injured but hurt all the same.

The scene laid out before students in ninth through 12th grade was nothing less than graphic. The black Pontiac Grand Am had its windows crackled into shards. Deer parts lay on the asphalt in front of the car. Berg’s body was strewn on the ground, surrounded by bloody pools. At exactly 9 a.m., Chatfield students were notified by intercom there had been a fatal crash, and by 9:07 a.m., law enforcement had arrived to perform scene safety and check Demorest and her passengers for injuries.

Chatfield’s firefighters arrived at 9:12 a.m., stabilizing the vehicle and powering up the extraction equipment to remove the roof – the occasional sound of disoriented passengers rising through the hum of the Jaws of Life as the roof is cracked off like a tuna can lid. Glass fell on the pavement, creating hazardous surfaces for emergency medical responders who appeared 17 minutes after the 911 call was made to report the crash.

Pohlman narrated, “Use of marijuana while driving can result in 90 days to six years of license revocation, fines from $1,000 to $20,000 and penalties from 90 days to seven years in prison.”

She went on, “A crash may cause people and items to be ejected far from the vehicle. Belle was not wearing her seatbelt, causing her to be ejected from the vehicle. It is the driver’s responsibility to ensure that all passengers are wearing seatbelts.”

Referring to the police officers, she said, “Law enforcement secures the scene, assesses the situation and requests additional help like auto-launch. They work to assure hospital helicopters are safe to land. Their role is also to investigate the crash. Fire and ambulance arrive after being dispatched…the fire department assists with removing victims from the vehicle. This may involve installing supports and using the Jaws of Life to cut apart the vehicle in order to remove entrapped victims. The ambulance service assists with identifying health concerns, stabilizing them and preparing for transport. The ambulance may provide patients with neck braces, tourniquets, oxygen and other medical interventions.”

Pohlman pointed out not all the emergency responders appeared immediately after the crash was discovered by the spectators and law enforcement.

“The ‘golden hour’ of opportunity to save lives makes a difference in survival because long delays between the time a crash happens and the time that a person is transported to a hospital makes all the difference,” she said. “Fillmore County’s hills and rivers, its bluff-land terrain impacts response times – if you can’t be found, your chances of surviving aren’t as high. While we are fortunate to have two trauma hospitals in the area – Mayo Clinic and Gundersen-Lutheran – driving to a trauma center may take over an hour and flying may take 15 minutes.”

And regarding Erickson’s injuries, Pohlman remarked, “Silja has sustained a severed femoral artery and has lost consciousness due to the trauma of blood loss. If there were nobody here to help her, she would bleed out within minutes. Being that this is a small town, her father, Leif, is a firefighter and has responded to the call, and also, people who hear about a crash often come out and take pictures that they post to social media before law enforcement and the ambulance crews can complete their work – family members don’t get a chance to make sure their loved one is safe or grieve when someone posts pictures of a crash to Facebook or Instagram.”

As the firefighters worked to free the remaining passengers, Pohlman told the students what would become of Berg’s body, beginning with transport to the coroner’s office, an autopsy being performed and then being released for burial.

“The effects on your family are lifelong, they never go away because they’re without their loved one. The passengers who were injured…their injuries never go away,” Pohlman said.

She cited Demorest’s role as the driver would place on the teenager responsibility for not insisting everyone is buckled into the car, and she also could be considered guilty of vehicular homicide due to marijuana use and distracted driving.

“If you’re not wearing your seatbelt, it increases the risk of ejection from the vehicle, injury and death, and unbelted people also hurt other passengers,” she added. “Fillmore County has one of the highest rates of distracted driving deaths and serious injuries in Minnesota – distracted driving causes one in five Minnesota crashes. It is illegal for drivers under 18 to use a cell phone or electronic device to access the Internet, text or e-mail, and this includes Snapchat and Instagram, and effective Aug. 1, 2019, drivers over age 18 will not be allowed to hold and use a phone while driving – only hands-free options will be legal.”

Pohlman continued, “Marijuana gives you the illusion of having sharper senses, when in reality, it makes it more difficult to make quick decisions, judge distances or speed and causes slow and disconnected thoughts, poor memory and paranoia. Use of marijuana while driving can result in a felony…if you’re charged with a felony, you lose the right to vote, carry a firearm, apply for student financial aid, have fishing or hunting licenses, and it makes getting a job more difficult.”

Pohlman finished addressing the students just before SADD member Larissa Martin stood to speak. “Most crashes are caused by driver behavior, so buckle up, drive the speed limit, be chemical-free and pay attention,” she said. “Hang around people who have a positive, healthy influence in your life, and remember that no phone or text message is worth risking your life or someone else’s life.”

Martin then implored her classmates to stop and think before making the wrong decision to drive while distracted. “This mock crash has been held to show the effects of distracted driving. Driving under the influence of alcohol is becoming less and less common, but every year, 1.6 million crashes are caused by distracted driving – texting while driving is responsible for 25% of all distracted driving crashes. The way to make a change is to be the change,” she said.

Martin also stated, “This isn’t a joke…it doesn’t just affect you. It affects your passengers and other drivers if you’re driving tired, smoking, Snapchatting, vaping or eating. Advocate for seatbelts because 90% of the people who are in crashes could be saved if they wear seatbelts. About half of the people killed last year weren’t wearing their seatbelts, and you can be injured even at 30 miles an hour if you’re not wearing your seatbelt. This crash has been to show real life consequences of driving while distracted.”

DeGeorge took the microphone next, and he recounted how his career began as a narcotics officer. He asked the students to promise him they won’t use drugs, alcohol or drive while distracted and to promise him they will call their parents to pick them up if they ever find themselves in a situation that requires adult assistance.

“In 1997, I started my career as a narcotics officer. I’ve been in a lot of scary situations where I’ve posed as someone buying or dealing drugs. As nervous as I got doing those things, I don’t really remember the first time I went to a car crash…I don’t know why, but I don’t. But I do remember the first time I went to someone’s house to tell them that their child was dead. I was terrified,” he said. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve fought someone in the street, and if I hadn’t fought them really hard, at least one guy would have killed me, but that didn’t scare me as much as having to go to someone’s house to tell them that they’ve lost a loved one. You can’t prepare for that, with the knowledge that when you go to a person’s house to tell them, it’s horrifying. You have to let them get it out, let them have that shock.”

DeGeorge said, “Picture your little brother or sister, parents, grandparents…someone close to you dead. Picture never getting to say goodbye to them…that’s the reality of never knowing how they felt. I’ve come here today to help, not just to hold you accountable for your actions. I’m here to help.”

As Pohlman and SADD co-advisor and math instructor Kiya Virgin stooped to sweep up shards of windshield glass from the asphalt, Virgin shared, “This year’s SADD has about 65 students in ninth through 12th grade, and the students did such a good job as actors, did their roles really well. Getting ready for this was a little bit daunting, but Brenda and our SADD co-advisor, Elizabeth Fuglestad, kind of ran the show. They did a good job. I’ve never seen a mock crash before, and it’s a good experience. I think some of the students are a little shell-shocked. I appreciate all the first responders coming to make the crash possible because I didn’t realize that there would be that many.”

Indoors and still wearing streams of corn syrup blood, Demorest reviewed the event. “When they said that they were doing a mock crash, I volunteered, but I didn’t think it would be as intense or anything like that,” she said. “SADD…you sign up for it because you’re against destructive decisions. I like being in it because I like being a role model and participating in activities, having people not make destructive decisions.”

As the driver of the car in the mock crash, she said, “It was really scary because I didn’t know what they were doing or what might happen – they told me what they were going to do, and they didn’t do any of it. I was surprised they put me on a backboard and put me in the ambulance. I kind of listened to Larissa’s speech when she was talking and I was in the ambulance. It maybe made me want to be more responsible when I’m driving. It may not be that big a deal to you – distracted driving – but you never know when your last moment will be or if anything ever will happen to you.”

Pohlman summarized the morning’s exercise, saying, in Fillmore County, it is done in cooperation with as many local schools as possible and as part of the Toward Zero Death (TZD) initiative that reviews how and why crashes happen and how they might be preventable.

She stated she feels fortunate to have the opportunities to speak to students about how to be responsible drivers. She is glad to have the cooperation of local law enforcement, ambulance and fire departments, and she hopes when a school district – be it a SADD chapter or simply a group of determined students who wish to make a difference – chooses to illustrate for the student body the permanence of injury and untimely death, it makes a lasting impression.

“You can’t bring someone back. I totally agree with Sheriff DeGeorge that the hardest thing he has to do is go do a death notification,” Pohlman said. “Law enforcement has a hard job, and we try to thank them, have students acknowledge that. Some students laugh at the crash, but I don’t think they mean to be disrespectful. I think they’re just scared and don’t know how to show it.”