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Mock crash delivers a sobering message

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

A black Buick Riviera has T-boned a maroon Ford LTD. Two bloodied students sit dazed in the front seat of the Ford.

A student driver tumbles out of the Riviera. Out spills a can of beer. Witnesses cry and try to help the injured.

Soon, firetrucks and ambulances are screaming toward the wreck. Police cruisers aren't far behind. Firefighters grind and pry at the metal doors of the Ford, trying to extricate the injured kids. A helicopter lands to evacuate the injured students to a trauma center.

Meanwhile, a Clearwater police officer is giving field sobriety tests to the driver of the Riviera. The driver barely can keep his balance. Soon he's in handcuffs, arrested for drunken driving.

Almost 600 Clearwater High School students watched this unfold in front of them Wednesday morning during a mock drunken driving accident performed in a practice field at the school.

The kids involved in the crash were theater students, the blood was Karo syrup with a little food coloring, and the cops and firefighters weren't really in a life-and-death situation.

But it sure seemed real. Though students watching were laughing and pushing at the beginning, many were stone-faced by the end, engrossed in the saga.

"I thought it was pretty serious," said Laura Engel, a 16-year-old member of Students Against Destructive Decisions. "I thought they did a good job acting this out. And with the firetrucks and helicopter coming, it made it real."

The mock accident comes at a time when police, rescue and school officials hope it will make a powerful impression. A weeklong spring break begins Friday afternoon for Pinellas students. Thousands will hit the roads in search of a fun time, but officials hope they will make wise decisions and avoid drinking and driving.

"This is very educational for our kids," said principal Nick Grasso. "It's giving them an opportunity to see what it's really like."

In the thick of it was actor Melissa Boni, a senior at the school. She played a student who drove up on the scene. She stayed in character the whole time, even when interviewed by a reporter.

"We told him not to get in the car before he left," she said. "You always think it's not going to happen to you."

The mock crash was put on by the Clearwater Police and Fire Departments, along with the Pinellas County School Board. Bayfront Medical Center's Bayflite helicopter and Sunstar Ambulances also were involved. The cars were given to the Fire Department by Nationwide Insurance.

Officer Robert Kinchen, Clearwater High's school resource officer, said students were allowed to voluntarily attend or skip the program. About one-quarter of the students attended.

Some students may have wanted to skip it because a popular Clearwater High School student was recently killed in a crash near the school.

Ricky Teal died in a Jan. 11 crash on Keene Road. Many students either witnessed the crash or drove up on it soon after it happened.

Kinchen said officials wanted to be sensitive, but believed the message of making smart decisions while behind the wheel was important to share with students.

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