The scene at 18 Mile and Garfield in Clinton Township on the morning of Dec. 1, 2011 was one to turn even the strongest stomachs – emergency crews working furiously to extract a barely conscious teen from the twisted steel and broken glass of his vehicle.
So realistic was this scene that few recognized it for what it really was, a graphic accident reenactment filmed by the Traffic Improvement Association of Michigan and Michigan Department of Transportation to raise awareness of distracted driving.
The video, which is now making its way around the world, was filmed in support of "Remembering Ally,” an ongoing awareness campaign in memory of 16-year-old Ally Zimmerman, a Romeo High School student who passed away in January 2011 from injuries sustained in a distracted driving accident.
“It was a big tragedy to the Romeo community,” said Jim Santilli, TIA executive director and Macomb Township resident. “Romeo students and friends of Ally came to me and said, ‘We’d like to do something in her name.’ I was already working on distracted driving so we started talking about what we could do to get the message out among teens and young adults.”
A community brainstorms ways to raise awareness
Four months later, members of the Zimmerman family, area law enforcement, government officials and dozens of others met at the Clinton-Macomb Public Library Main Branch to brainstorm ways to target the distracted driving message to teens and young adults.
“I got a lot of feedback from the Romeo students on what they thought would be effective,” Santilli said. “One of the things that came out of it was producing a realistic video.”
In the fall of 2011, Santilli reached out to MDOT and local public safety agencies to discuss the filming of a realistic crash video.
“Nothing was choreographed,” said Michael C. Phy, deputy chief of administration for Clinton Township fire. “When our guys were briefed, I told them, ‘I want you to run this just as if you were out on the road and this is a real thing.’”
Students from Dakota High School and ITT Technical Institute Criminal Justice Program in Troy volunteered to portray crash victims and Clinton Township EMS officer Dave Barrios utilized his previously untapped skill in special effects make-up.
Firefighters cut through the wreckage, supplied by Ruehle's Towing, while a U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Detroit helicopter waited to airlift victims to Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township, where they were met by trauma personnel.
Feedback says the video must be graphic
The result was so realistic that Phy and Santilli still field questions from viewers wondering how a film crews happened to be in the area when this accident occurred.
“One of the things we asked at that first meeting was if the video should be graphic, should it include blood, and all of the students came back and said yes, it needs to be graphic to get that message across and show that, in reality, this is what can occur,” Santilli said. “We also talked about including Ally’s mom and her friends and those scenes have been really effective. You can feel that mother-daughter relationship and that loss.”
It may be too early to measure the video’s impact on distracted driving across the state, but on a case-by-case basis, it seems to be achieving its goal.
For Dakota student Cassady Temple, who participated in the filming, the video has made all the difference in her driving habits.
“I was 15 and had just gotten my driver’s permit, so it was terrifying,” she said. “Now I leave my phone in my purse and leave my purse in the backseat so I’m not even tempted to press a button.”
Having known Ally personally, Temple recognizes that she is far more aware of the dangers of distracted driving than her peers but said she believes the video will have a positive impact as it is more widely viewed.
“I don’t think a lot of people fully appreciate the risk that you’re running when you’re looking away from the road for even half a second,” she said. “This video scares people, which I think is a good way to get the message across. It is very real and very scary.”
As of Oct. 2, the eight-minute video had been viewed more than 64,000 times on YouTube in more than 90 countries.
Santilli said he has almost daily requests for copies of the video and is currently working with agencies across the state to mass distribute the video to schools, driver’s education programs and even multinational corporations like Boeing, which plan to use the video to promote employee safety.
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