Like many communities within a rural setting, Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, has some partying teens. Students believe that good times lie in alcohol and marijuana use. And when teens party, impaired driving isn’t far behind. That’s why the Fatal Vision® Marijuana Simulation Experience Kit helps educate Alberta youth.
Melanie Murrin, impact youth coordinator for Safe Community Wood Buffalo, organizes an outreach program to ninth-grade students in the area that’s funded by Shell Canada. “It’s called the P.A.R.T.Y. Program,” Murrin says, adding that the acronym stands for Prevent Alcohol and Risk-related Trauma in Youth.
The P.A.R.T.Y. program is offered every year in the spring. By that time, most ninth graders either have their driving learner’s permit or are about to get it.
Many of them come into the program believing that marijuana use doesn’t have much, if any, impact on their driving skills. Murrin knows this because students begin the program with a survey of their beliefs about and experience with impaired and distracted driving and their effects. Murrin notes that many students insist that marijuana use actually helps them focus more clearly and causes them to slow down and drive more carefully.
“They’re very open and honest,” Murrin says. “It can take a bit to get them to understand.”
The P.A.R.T.Y. Program begins its 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. day with about 100 students listening to an introduction and some talks about driving safety facts. Speakers include volunteers who relate their own firsthand experiences being the random victim of impaired driving. Speakers include someone from a local brain injury group, RCMP members, emergency services staff, probation officers, Alberta Health Services, Canadian Mental Health, Victim Services Unit, and other local members who have been directly impacted by the careless choices of an impaired driver.
Next students experience the after-effects of a post-party traffic collision. Murrin starts with a mock collision in the parking lot, complete with actors in the vehicle who simulate injuries or death and must be extracted by emergency responders.
Students then see what happens after victims are extracted. Actors and EMTs show victims receiving CPR and having tubes inserted into their bodies. At least one victim then crashes and dies.
That can shake students up, but the P.A.R.T.Y. doesn’t end there. RCMP and Victim Services walk students through the notification of the victim’s family and an emergency room scenario at the hospital with an ER nurse. They learn how, if they were in a collision, their clothing would be cut off and a catheter inserted, pic lines to their heart, lungs, etc. They also go to the morgue’s viewing room for another sobering dose of reality.
“The students react very strongly to the idea of having their clothes cut off and the catheter,” says Murrin. “Yet little do they realize the seriousness of their injuries.”
After breaking students into small groups, all the ninth-graders have a chance to use the Marijuana Goggles. Murrin has them engage in activities such as passing a ball back and forth, tracking a maze with a pen, and choosing the correct flashing pen, all while wearing the Marijuana Goggles.
Murrin takes advantage of these activities to go up and introduce herself to students who are wearing the Fatal Vision® impairment goggles. She does it to make a point, saying most students can’t even properly shake hands with her while wearing them. It’s an object lesson for the P.A.R.T.Y. Program’s goal of getting students to think about the consequences of their actions and how alcohol and marijuana use effects those actions.
“They get a firsthand experience,” Murrin says. She adds that the maze activity in particular helps convince student holdouts who still insist that marijuana doesn’t effect their driving skills.
This is the first year the P.A.R.T.Y. Program has used the Marijuana Goggles. Last year, the program started to address distracted driving, too. Students are asked to perform a task on their phone while simultaneously attempting another activity such as matching colors. The Marijuana Simulation Experience Kit made addressing marijuana use an easy—and very effective—fit into the program.
Murrin ends the day with a student debriefing. Experts give the students 10 coping skills—ways to use their new knowledge, how to move forward when something bad does happen, and where to go for help. She emphasizes one thing to students.
“We’re trying to make the road safe for everyone.”
Murrin says that using the Marijuana Goggles has helped make the P.A.R.T.Y. Program successful. She measures that success in several ways.
First, by student reaction. Students fill out a post-P.A.R.T.Y. Program survey to measure how much they learned. She says these, along with student reaction on the P.A.R.T.Y. Program day, give her good feedback. And this year for the first time they returned several months later for another survey to see how the new learning had stuck with students.
“The response was great when the students started realizing certain aspects about the goggles,” she says. “But what was most surprising was the comments and feedback that the students were so willing to share with us about their own personal experiences with marijuana.”
Second, by a senior survey. “We revisit them in twelfth grade,” Murrin says. “A lot of them are very receptive to us returning. They remember things and talk about how they have changed their behavior as a result of what they’d learned.”
Third, Murrin knows the P.A.R.T.Y. Program has a positive impact by statistics. Her area shows a decrease in both impaired behaviors and in collisions for the teen age group.
“We’ve definitely had a decrease in behaviors,” Murrin states. “They wear seatbelts. They don’t play with their phones while driving. They get alternate rides home if they’ve engaged in any drinking or marijuana use. We’ve seen a decrease in the number of collisions.”
Best practices for the future
Murrin believes strongly in not lecturing students on impaired driving behaviors, but in being open to them and their beliefs and experience. She urges parents not to argue with their children but to keep the door open so they will feel comfortable turning to them in a situation such as choosing between driving home impaired or calling Mom or Dad for a ride.
During the P.A.R.T.Y. Program, she notes that it’s not uncommon for students to joke about the goggles and their experience. That can help defuse tension—and it can help open a door for deeper discussion.
“Don’t judge students who are skeptical or humorous,” she says. “You have to let students experience it [the goggles] themselves. Then go on to explain marijuana and how the goggles are meant to work.”
The P.A.R.T.Y. Program has grown steadily over the last few years. Because it’s so successful, Murrin would love to continue to work more deeply with grade 12 students and start working with another group affected by impaired driving in the Fort McMurray area—college students.
“I would like to reach out with the program to the local community college,” she says. “We’d hit a community target.”