Police Practice

Educating Young Drivers About Alcohol

By Patrick Gallagher, M.P.A.
Stock image of a seatbelt surrounded by broken glass and blood.

Officers respond to a vehicle crash involving apparent injuries. The scene is chaotic. Rescue and fire personnel do what they can for those who cling to life, while the police deal with those who have caused this mayhem—if they have survived. As the day progresses, family members are notified, their lives forever changed. Death, hardship, and retribution will be linked to this event forever.

Such vehicle crashes occur too often in the United States. This reality has become the basis for a program geared toward educating high school students of the dangers associated with drinking and driving. Coined “Every 15 Minutes,” the program takes students and their families through a 2-day experience of a fatal vehicle crash and its aftermath.1


The Virginia Beach, Virginia, Police Department’s Crime Prevention Unit has sponsored the program, originally developed in Spokane, Washington, since 1999 and has found it particularly effective.

Numerous city departments, such as the Virginia Beach Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services, Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office, Virginia Beach City Public Schools, and Virginia Beach Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, have participated in the 2-day program. Several private organizations also have been notable partners.


The program is comprehensive and requires months of preparation. During the most recent presentation, 20 preselected students were chosen from a local high school to participate.

The students take part in role playing exercises. While the participants watch, a fellow student is placed in a body bag, and another is driven away in handcuffs. Crash scenes are re-created as student-observers view the removal of a classmate’s body, arrest of the offender, emergency room efforts to save lives, death identification and notification, reading of obituaries, and a mock DUI criminal trial.

Activities later in the evening include interaction with police officers, medical personnel, and members of the community who speak to the students about their personal experiences with alcohol-related incidents. The authorities talk about responding to crash scenes, contacting parents for death notifications, and going home at night haunted by the tragic events that occur every day. Among the speakers are individuals who have experienced the loss of loved ones in alcohol-related incidents. At the conclusion of the evening events, the students stay overnight at a hotel for a retreat; their absence from home serves to further simulate that they have become victims and are gone.

The second day’s activities include an assembly attended by juniors and seniors, where a music video of the previous day’s events is presented. The video footage, including interviews with student participants and their parents, features the scene of one student removed as a crash fatality and another due to incarceration. Special guest speakers address the assembly and relay their own accounts of the harsh realities of drinking and driving. The lesson that drinking alcohol and driving an automobile is not an inconsequential decision is reinforced.


The program coordinator (PC) eases the process of planning the event by developing a timeline to meet specific goals. The VBPD has found that planning 11 months in advance can minimize most problems.

The VBPD program typically begins in May of the school year preceding a presentation. During that time, the PC picks two high schools from a rotating list to participate. The PC works with school coordinators and administrators to select dates in March and April, spaced at least 6 weeks apart for the presentations. After dates have been secured, stakeholders are notified through an e-mail distribution list. The PC then finds 30 police volunteers to help with the project.

In late October or early November, an information night is held at the selected schools. During this mandatory meeting for students and parents, the PC and school coordinators present an overview of the program. One student and parent from a previous presentation attend to give a testimonial of their involvement. A video of a former presentation also is shown during the meeting, followed by a question-and-answer session.

Six weeks from the event, another meeting is held with the PC, school coordinators, and student participants to discuss the 2-day itinerary and committee assignments, including table display, advertising and marketing, showcase, and announcements. Discussions of rules and expectations during the 2-day event, as well as completion of mock student obituaries and parental death notifications, also occur.

The PC and points of contact from all agency partners meet 5 weeks ahead of the event to discuss the 2-day itinerary and the expectations of each agency for those days. One week later, the PC confirms arrangements with the hotel and restaurants serving the participants and orders event-specific t-shirts from a local graphic design shop. Virginia Beach City Public Schools students designed the shirts for the original presentation in 1999.

The PC and school coordinators determine crash participants 3 weeks before the event. The PC supplies crash participant information to investigators so that they can complete crash reports. The PC also prepares the warrants for the magistrate’s office.

Interviews of the crash participants and parents are conducted by members of the Virginia Beach Fire Department’s multimedia unit, which also schedules video shoots at the school with the help of the school resource officer. Meetings occur between members of the multimedia unit, school technology representatives, and the PC during this stage. Make-up coordinators, the school’s drama teacher, and the PC also meet to discuss make-up issues. The make-up coordinator places any necessary orders.

Two weeks from the event, the master spreadsheet, all obituaries, and parental notification information are finalized. The program for the assembly also is completed. During the final week, the PC, school coordinators, and participating students have one last meeting to ensure all parties understand their expectations.


The Virginia Beach Police Department strives to partner with the community in a cooperative effort to enhance the quality of life for all citizens. The implementation of programs, like Every 15 Minutes, is a key element in the efforts to meet its mission.

Captain Gallagher, a veteran of the U.S. Army Military Police Corps, serves with the Virginia Beach, Virginia, Police Department.

The author would like to thank Master Police Officer Jim McElligott of the Virginia Beach, Virginia, Police Department’s Crime Prevention Unit for his efforts since 1999 as program coordinator of Every 15 Minutes.


1 The author bases the name of the program on 1996 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics indicating that 17,126 alcohol-related crashes occurred that year.

“…the program takes students and their families through a 2-day experience of a fatal vehicle crash and its aftermath.”