It’s prom night in Pekin. A teenaged driver and his date are thinking of wrapping up the festivities. The young driver has made the unwise choice of including drugs or alcohol in the party. When he swerves to avoid a pothole on the road, his impaired reflexes cause him to crash into another vehicle.

This crash scenario was a simulation performed during the Prom Night Crash Reenactment, the centerpiece of Operation Prom Night held Thursday afternoon on the football field at Pekin Community High School. The American Red Cross Central and Southern Illinois offers Operation Prom Night as a free program to local schools. The Red Cross works with local officials, fireman, policeman, and more to bring home the risks of driving under the influence to young people in Central Illinois.

After the crash, the simulation continued with bystanders arriving on the scene, said Lisa Maynard, ThinkFirst coordinator at OSF Healthcare Illinois Neurological Institute. They called 911 and checked on the status of those in both vehicles. The driver himself was relatively unscathed, sustaining just a few bruises and a gashed cheek. Next to him, his date was sprawled in the passenger seat, very still and completely unresponsive. In the other vehicle, the driver was slumped forward against the steering wheel. The woman in the passenger seat was plainly very much alive, by turns berating the impaired driver and calling bystanders to check on her friend.

First responders from the Pekin Police Department, the Pekin Fire Department and Rescue Squad, and Advanced Medical Transport arrived on the scene, said Maynard. The driver of the first vehicle was given a sobriety test and placed under arrest. His date is beyond the help of first responders. In the other vehicle, the driver was unconscious from blunt force trauma. The strident passenger has sustained back injuries that left her paralyzed. An OSF Life Flight helicopter was called in to evacuate her from the scene.

Pekin Community High School junior Payton Thomas, 16, was one of students watching the simulation from the football stands outside the high school. She believes the incident heightened consciousness of the potential consequences of underaged drinking. 

“I think underaged drinking is pretty common, especially on prom night,” said Thomas. “I think Operation Prom Night made a lot of people understand that your death doesn’t just affect you, and one bad choice on your part can lead to someone else’s death.”

The event was organized by the school’s Student Ambassadors group and sponsored by PCHS principal Amy Hubner and school counselors Jakki Johnson, Theresa Slover and Ann Gallinger. PCHS worked with community partners like OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, the American Red Cross, the Tazewell County coroner and Preston-Hanley Funeral Home.

“It’s rare to get a Life Flight here,” said Joel Schmieg, PCHS assistant principal of curriculum. “Weather conditions have to be almost perfect for them to land safely, and they always have to be on call for emergencies.”

The purpose of the Prom Night Crash reenactment was to raise awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and to encourage students to make the right choices.

“It’s always important to keep the risks of driving while impaired in mind, but it’s especially important during prom and graduation season,” said Maynard. “We want to encourage people to make the right choices, which means that not only should you not drive impaired, but you shouldn’t ride with someone who’s impaired.”

Michelle Watson, whose 18-year-old son died in a one-car crash with two of his friends in rural Tazewell County on Father's Day in 2006, shared her story with PCHS students. Her message was that decisions matter, and a decision like driving while impaired can forever change the lives of people around them.

“The event was very successful,” said Maynard. “The students were amazing, and all the community partners did a great job of pulling together and working as a team. The students seemed very attentive and very receptive.”