“A Union High School student was killed and two others received life-threatening injuries as a result of a car accident in La Porte City on Friday morning. Following a brief investigation, the student behind the wheel of a car that slammed into another vehicle in the school parking lot was arrested when it was determined she had been texting on her cell phone at the time of the accident.”

Residents in the vicinity of Union High School who witnessed the flashing lights and sirens of a parade of emergency vehicles responding to the scene, in addition to the landing and subsequent take-off of a life-flight helicopter, can rest easy knowing that the incident described above was merely a simulation. No actual students were harmed during the staging of a mock car crash in the Union High School parking lot on May 10.

The nine students in Erin Wittenburg’s Health II class at Union High School don’t ever want their classmates to be involved in a distracted driving incident. That’s why, when presented with an opportunity to stage a realistic car crash simulation illustrating the dangers of distracted driving, they jumped at the chance.

The opportunity to do so came as a result of a 2019 Traffic Safety grant offered by AAA and supported by local representative Joe Craft. As Wittenburg pondered which aspects of traffic safety would be most meaningful to the high school’s students, she consulted with La Porte City Police Chief Chris Brecher.

“What do you see is the big thing you see that we need to bring awareness to?” was the question she posed to him. His answer, “Impaired driving,” was not unexpected one.

“We could really bridge our communities together with some kind of distracted driving simulation,” Brecher told her.

“Mostly texting and driving is what we see a lot here,” Wittenburg acknowledged.

With the decision to pursue the topic of distracted driving, the grant application was submitted and soon the school was notified it would be the recipient of $400 to support their project.

Soon, a joint meeting involving the La Porte City and Dysart police and fire chiefs, along with other emergency personnel from both communities, was scheduled. Over the course of a two hour meeting, the various agencies came together and quickly determined their roles in the simulation, drafting a plan for how the mock car accident could look.

“It was overwhelming to see that kind of response,” Wittenburg said, thankful for the cooperative spirit and enthusiasm members of both communities expressed for the event.

In order for the simulation to work, Wittenburg knew its presentation would depend upon students who could effectively play a number of dramatic roles. She immediately thought of the nine juniors in her Health II elective class as a group who could pull it off.

“I really felt like I could come to them and say, ‘We’re going to put on something that’s going to impact your school. Are you ready?’”

As it turned out, they were more than ready. Surprisingly, the group came to quick consensus about their roles, which included witnesses, victims who were mild and critically injured and a driver who was arrested on the scene. Several students did express interest in one additional part.

“I was very surprised that many of them wanted to be the victim that died,” Wittenburg recalled.

To prepare for the event, students spent weeks preparing. While portions of their presentation were scripted, other parts were not, instead relying on their natural responses to the emergency personnel and other adults who were part of the scenes depicted. Prior to the presentation, Wittenburg praised the careful, measured and mature approach her students brought to the event.

“One student in the class has had an experience already with distracted driving. She said, ‘It’s changed my life and I want other people to be able to feel what that’s like,’” she shared.

“Your life can change just like that, over one stupid decision,” Seth Wirtz said, snapping his fingers.

“I don’t think people understand the severity of what can happen,” Emma Shirk stated, referencing the scene when classmate Jasmyn Bush “dies” at the scene.

“They also don’t take into consideration what could happen to them[selves],” she added, citing the simulated arrest of Alana Eastman that was also dramatized.

While the message of “Don’t text while driving” is an important one, the students who helped stage the event want their classmates to understand another important lesson. After a crash there is so much they CAN do to make a difference.

To help them learn how to respond in an emergency situation, the goal of the high school’s simulation was to make the experience as authentic as possible. The 911 call placed by Riley Davis was broadcast live to the student body so they could better understand the amount of detail involved, including the questions an emergency dispatcher is likely to ask.

Wittenburg noted that other aspects of responding to an emergency, such as starting CPR and locating available Automated External Defibrillator (AED) units, are equally important.

“The kids need to understand they can start the process before emergency personnel arrive,” she said.

“If you’ve ever come across an accident, it’s an unforgettable vision when you experience that sight for the first time. That’s what we hope, that kids would know what to do in case of an emergency,” she added.

For the students involved in the simulation, their participation has already had an impact on their actions while behind the wheel. Something as simple as looking away to change songs has given them cause to reconsider what can happen when their attention strays from the road before them.

The impact of their presentation was clearly evidenced by the somber procession of their fellow students into the auditorium following the demonstration. The presence of a casket on the stage, along with the emotional statements offered by two mothers and several emergency personnel from La Porte City and Dysart afterward helped drive home the point that distracted driving, while unfortunately all-too common, has serious consequences for those who put their phones before their friends and family.