>It Won’t Happen To Me

>Yesterday, the high school hosted its annual pre-prom Don’t Drink and Drive program for the student body. Last year’s program was a refreshing change of pace: the usual scared-straight videos and parent-style lecture was replaced by a heartfelt discussion by a young man who had been paralyzed by a drunk driver, aided (because he could not, in fact, speak) by his loving mother.

This year, no such luck. Bill Richardson, a former Gwinnett County police officer, came to give his presentation about, purportedly, teens and alcohol and driving. The presentation is part of Mr. Richardson’s It Won’t Happen To Me campaign to reduce the number of teen deaths resulting from car accidents. (Reported accurately by Bill as “the leading cause of death among teens today”.) The program was mostly what you might expect: Bill spent a long time lecturing the kids things they should already know. A lot of dontdothises and dontdothats intermingled with graphic video clips of some real car accident tragedies and even more reenacted car accident tragedies.

The worst of these videos can be seen below. It should be noted that the students had seen before during an entirely separate “don’t text and drive” program delivered as part of our school-wide Advisement program.

A couple of things stand out to me about this program, and this video in particular.

First of all, don’t we all know by now that Scared Straight doesn’t work? Taking young toughs to the jailhouse in the hopes of frightening them away from crime forever only ends up teaching them new and more troublesome ways to look and act tough. Likewise, when the students see tragedy in a movie, they are inclined to think of it as just that: a movie. It is clear from the first moments of the above film that it is a reenactment — a fiction. We are conditioned to percieve this distinction, even when it does not exist: on the big screen, even true events seem “unreal.” It seems like creating this sort of separation between viewer and event makes more, not less, likely an attitude of indifference or insusceptibility.

That it doesn’t work, to me, seems a good thing, and we should immediately turn to different methods. This sort of pathetic appeal (pun intended) is precisely the argumentative style we should be teaching kids to recognize and reject. If we learn anything from the current state of world politics, it must be that fleeting, gut-reaction emotional response should be — indeed, must be — no basis for the formation of opinions and plans of action. In fact, it seems like this sort of emotional conditioning might very well lead to an increase in poor decision making. If I base my negative reaction to drunk driving on my gut reaction while viewing a disturbing video, I may just as likely base my positive reaction to drunk driving on my gut reaction while totally wasted and trying to impress a girl or seem tough or save face.

Furthermore, if your intention is to persuade kids not to drink and drive, it is advisable to stay on message. Pick your battles. This program is given 3 days before prom for a reason. Mr. Richardson lost sight of the immediate goal, and a lot of his time (and mine — this was during my planning period) could have been saved if someone had simply told him that the texting thing had been done. That what we are really worried about is drinking. Prom is right around the corner, after all.

But Bill didn’t stop there. And this is what really gets me. At some point he made the leap to eating and driving, as well. He implored the students not to eat their chicken biscuits behind the wheel.

This all reminds me of the numerous Don’t Do Drugs programs that I experienced as a child. Aside from the failed reasoning behind a “just say no” philosophy (an issue I explore in some depth in an earlier post), drug use prevention programs always take one too many steps. As a child, I am with you for don’t do heroin, don’t do cocaine, don’t do marijuana — especially if you show me some scary pictures or bring in a convict to prove the dangers. Adding cigarettes and alcohol to the mix, though, starts to muddy the waters. After all, my dad drinks alcohol. My grandfather smokes. What gives?

The program they gave my fifth grade year also went further: caffeine is a drug.

This sort of divergence from a central theme seems to risk a complete loss of effectiveness. After all, once a Georgia-born, Coca-Cola-raised raised fifth grader hears you say that he shouldn’t drink caffeine, you are finished. He no longer hears a word you say, and there is a good chance that whatever you said before has also been tossed out. You have become an unreliable source. Your credibility is shot.

Ever thus to Bill and his chicken biscuits.

The real reason for this post, though, is less a polemic than a curiosity.

You see, Bill Richardson started his program by saying, “we all have said ‘It won’t happen to me’ before, and it’s important to remember that it can happen to you.” Which got me thinking: nobody ever says “It won’t happen to me.” In fact, the very idea of anyone saying such strikes me immediately as ridiculous.

A discussion which uses “It Won’t Happen To Me” as its jumping-off point surrounds nearly every great social ill of the last 20 years. Alcohol and drug addiction, domestic violence, AIDS, even diabetes: all seem at least in part to be caused by some uninformed person saying “It Won’t Happen To Me” just before partaking in some ill-advised risk behavior which leads to their inevitable ruin. The following hypothetical conversations illustrate the point:

TODD (Slamming his 14th brewski): Well, I’m bored of this party. I’m leaving. Anybody need a ride?
SUE (Concerned): Todd, you’re drunk! Don’t you know that driving under the influence is the leading cause of death in teens?
TODD (Climbing into his hatchback): Yeah, but it won’t happen to me.

TODD (Flexing his biceps): Well, it’s Friday. I am going out to have anonymous unprotected sex with multiple partners.
STU: (Stepping from the kitchen): Todd, be careful. AIDS can affect anyone. If you are going to choose to have sex out of wedlock, you should really wear a condom.
TODD (Checking his high-top fade in the mirror): Nah. It won’t happen to me.

Now, I understand what these activists are aiming at when they use “It Won’t Happen To Me” to start their spiel. They are not referring to an actual spoken phrase, but are rather making reference to an assumed mindset that we share before we make decisions which are statistically inadvisable. They hope that by facing the mindset beforehand we can avoid it when faced with a real situation. As I said with regards to D.A.R.E., context-free, all-or-nothing social practice is at least pointless and ineffective, at worst damaging in itself. We cannot hope — nor should we — that something as complex and nuanced as peer group sociology and adolescent psychology can be reduced to a set of predesignated rules and regulations. To do so is at once irresponsible and unimaginative.

“It Won’t Happen To Me” is a false construct. It doesn’t actually exist, in our minds or elsewhere, when we are in the midst of making a crucial decision. Or, if it does exist, it is a spontaneous generation of our psyche which likely gets much more positive reinforcement than negative. When we get in the car, even entirely sober, and face the chance of being hit by another driver. When we place our money in the bank, despite the fact that banks can collapse. When we get our hair died, knowing that many dye-jobs turn out just horribly. When we squeeze again into our skinny jeans and confront the risk of an embarrassing rip. In each of these situations, undoubtedly, we must also say to ourselves, “It Won’t Happen To Me.” And inevitably, more often than not, we are right.

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About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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