Educate and then enforce
For teens prom will be a fun event that they will remember for their whole life. But for many parents, it can be worrying to think that your son or daughter will be at risk for traffic crashes while out celebrating.
This is the tragedy that befell the Hansen family, who lost their daughter at the age of 16 to a drunk driver. Kaitlyn Hansen was a junior at Fillmore Central High School when her Ford Taurus was hit head-on. The incident occurred on Highway 52 near Chatfield.
The driver of the other vehicle was 56-year-old Cindy Mueske, who crossed the centerline traveling between 85 to 95 mph.
According to investigators, Mueske had a blood alcohol concentration between .08 and .151 at the time of the collision. The legal limit in the state of Minnesota is .08. Mueske pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide.
Although struck by such a terrible tragedy, the Hansen family hopes that others can learn from Kaitlyn’s story, and that those who hear it will think twice before getting behind the wheel after drinking or using drugs.
On Thursday, OHS students got to hear Kaitlyn’s story and participate in several activities aimed at educating them on the dangers of drinking and driving.
Capt. Jeff Mundale of Owatonna Police, TZD (Toward Zero Deaths) Coordinator Jason Petterson, State Patrol Sgt. Troy Christianson, SE MN TZD Coordinator Jessica Schleck, and OHS SHOC Advisor Nancy Williams all banded together to organize and participate in the event, which took place in the school’s gym during lunch time.
Nancy Williams credits her SHOC students with helping to come up with the idea. “They’re the ones who suggested we include the car,” Williams said. “So we worked together and got it here.”
SHOC stands for Students Helped Others Choose, and Williams says that those involved have made her proud of both their steadfast adherence to helping their peers and their strength of character. “They’ve given speeches at some of the other schools, and they work closely to help their peers,” she said. There are currently 82 students involved in SHOC at OHS.
Mundale oversaw a beanbag toss in which students had to toss beanbags without a set of impairment goggles, and then try to perform the same activity with a set of impairment goggles on.
The goggles partially replicate the vision of being intoxicated, and Mundale and his fellow officers were equipped with an arsenal of differing sets that varied in strength.
“It’s about educating them,” Mundale said. “What’s important to mention is about 30 teens age 13 to 19 are killed each year in Minnesota, and about a third of those are from drinking and driving.”
Mundale thinks that it’s vital to teach young people safe habits at an early age to catch them before they’re able to make mistakes. “This is a critical time to set a good example,” he said.
While Mundale supervised the beanbag toss and shared some eye-opening statistics, Sgt. Christianson had students try their hand at shooting hoops while wearing the goggles.
“It’s important to carry over my experience to help them make smart choices,” Christianson said. He has spent years as a crash reconstructionist, and knows firsthand the dangers of impaired driving. “Basically we want to educate and then enforce,” he said.
Petterson, who was helping to administer field sobriety tests to students with the goggles on, explained that, “they’re realizing that they can’t keep their functions straight.” Along with the other volunteers, he hopes this might deter students from making unwise choices during prom weekend.
One of the students who walked the line for Petterson, Andrew Frank, described the feeling of trying to perform the test while wearing the impairment goggles as, “being dizzy times 10.”
Fellow student Terrell Connor, who took a few shots from the free throw line with the goggles on, feels it’s a great way to instill positive choices for life. “My distance was all screwed up. It really messed with my depth perception, which isn’t good,” he said.
Christian Nogle also tried his hand at some of the activities, and was shocked to see the difference when he pealed his goggles off. “It felt normal at first, but then when I tried to move everything was different from where I was,” he said, adding the best part was when he took the goggles off and saw the dramatic change.
“We just hope that they carry some of the lessons they learn here through their entire life,” Williams said. Although this is the first year OHS has held a safety event like this one, Williams anticipates it will become an annual tradition.
While the car is a powerful message, Williams knows that students will get a lot out of the hands-on demonstrations. “I think kids learn more while having fun,” she said.
After taking part in the activities, students were also asked to make a pledge not to drink or drive. Williams thinks that this is an important part of making sure that they follow through on the lessons they learned.
By giving students a real-world example, and having them experience the feeling of impairment while trying to perform certain tasks, the volunteers at OHS’ pre-prom safety event know that they will have positively impacted students’ lives.
But at the end of the day Kaitlyn Hansen’s story is an important reminder that when it comes to driver safety, it’s not all just fun and games.