WESTMORELAND — The “No Empty Chair” Teen Driving Safety Campaign drew approximately 300 Westmoreland High School students who watched volunteer firefighters and first responders stage a mock car crash on Thursday, May 23 in the Westmoreland High School bus garage parking area.
The campaign’s name refers to all of the students and their friends who’ll be alive and present at graduation,” said Kristen Muir, Westmoreland Jr./Sr. High School guidance councilor. “With proms and graduation coming up we’re just trying to plant a seed in the students minds about safe choices.”`
School officials, Westmoreland volunteer firefighters, Oneida County Sheriffs Office deputies and New York State Police participated in the activity designed to demonstrate the possible consequences of distracted driving.
The three main types of distraction are taking your eyes off the road, taking your hands off the wheel, and taking your mind off driving, according to the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT).
NYSDOT describes a distraction as anything that takes your attention away from driving. Examples include using a navigation system, eating, listening to the radio too loud, horseplay and of course texting, or even talking on a cellphone.
The NYSDOT also cites texting as especially dangerous because it combines all three distractions. Taking eyes off the road to look at the phone, taking hands off the wheel to send it and not paying attention to driving to configure the message.
Muir said the idea to hold this event came from two transportation employees who also worked as volunteer firefighters, Jeff Effland and Waylan Wilczek. Wilczek is also 1st Captain of the Westmoreland Fire Department. Effland retired from the WVFD just this year.
Westmoreland students also participated in the demonstration both as victims involved in the accident and genuine student/firefighters, or Restricted Active Members (RAM) firefighters. RAM firefighters are students who are training to become regular volunteer firefighters. On scene were RAM firefighters, Vincent D’Amico, Hayden Johnson (victim), Justin Michaels, Logan Strebing and Tyler Wilczek.
Before the viewing students actually saw the scene, created by the volunteer firefighters and student actors, the scenario that four of their classmates had been involved in a single car accident, a head on collision with a tree on their way home from a end of year party, was set by Muir. The driver, portrayed by student/actor/RAM firefighter Johnson, had been drinking, but when asked if he was ok to drive by another passenger he said he was fine.
Once outside, the scene the assembly students viewed made some of them gasp, and comment “Oh my, God”
A wrecked four-door sedan with its front-end smashed in and windshield missing, a smoke machine placed under the hood giving the appearance the car was recently involved in an front-end collision.
The driver was conscious, but bleeding profusely from the forehead with stage make-up. Also, another male passenger, student Matthew Coyne was in the back seat apparently unconscious. A third passenger, student Ashley Murphy hung outside the left-hand rear window with a wide smear of stage make-up blood dripping down her arm. Student Kylie McGowan applied all the lifelike make up to the mock victims.
Student Alia Effland’s blood-soaked face was visible to all as she lay prone across the hood of the vehicle as if she had come through the windshield upon the vehicle’s impact her body half in, half out of the vehicle.
The sirens of the emergency vehicles were heard approaching the scene, Students watching holding the hands of other students as a means of support. Some students embraced.
The firefighters used hydraulic rescue tools to free the mock-injured passengers in the vehicle. After checking vital signs on the student on the hood, the firefighter covered her staged-deceased body. Another female student was pronounced dead as she was loaded into the ambulance. The driver of the vehicle, Johnson was escorted to an Oneida County Sheriffs vehicle, handcuffed and placed under arrest after a mock-field sobriety test. The last victim, Coyne was placed on a backboard and taken away in the ambulance.
Firefighter Ricky Izzarry with Utica Fire, who put six kids through Westmoreland High School spoke on a microphone addressing the student spectators. Through the entire event the students stood motionless with blank expressions on their faces.
“It is not our intention to scare you,” Izzarry said. “We simply want you to understand you guys-16, 17, 18 years old...you’re adults. As adults you have to understand there is an important rule about being an adult, and that the choices that you make. It’s so important you try very hard to make the right choices, because when you don’t sometimes awful things happen”
Westmoreland Jr./Sr. High School Principal Joshua Saxton said he hopes this excercise will help students to understand how quickly things can spiral out of control if they don’t take consequences into consideration. He also spoke about choices, a common thread of the afternoon.
“As a young person, sometimes you fail to see the dangers of making bad decisions; bad choices,” Saxton said. “Hopefully this will help them make better choices during this season of graduations and proms. We hope this will lead them to think twice before they make a decision that puts them in serious danger.”