By Steven Nalley
If traffic cones were people, Neiko Howell, an eighth grader at Armstrong Middle School, would be trapped in jail for life on 20 counts of vehicular manslaughter.
Howell said the sobering news came after he tried to navigate a course of traffic cones in a golf cart while wearing goggles designed to simulate the impairments of drunk driving. He said Marcus Ellis, drug court coordinator for the state’s eighth judicial district, told him he had run over 20 cones.
“He said that’s what happens when you drink just two beers,” Ellis said. “He said I ran a lot of family members over.”
Armstrong Middle School’s eighth graders attempted this drunk driving simulation in between classes Saturday, during a half-day of school planned to make up for snow days earlier in the year.
Ellis said he told students that the traffic cones symbolized mailboxes, motorcyclists, family and friends to get a message through to them: While anyone can drink and drive, it’s impossible to drink and drive safely.
“If we can reach these kids and tell them they can’t drive safely when they’re impaired, it’s worth it,” Ellis said. “It’s life and death.”
Sharonna Grammer, another student, said she had a lot of practice driving in the country, and her mother had supervised her driving to AMS before. That experience was useless against the simulation, she said.
“He said I ran over my cousin, my aunt, my brother, and somebody on a bike,” Grammer said. “It’s very blurry.”
To make less of an understatement, it’s like trying to watch “Avatar” with someone else’s prescription glasses instead of 3-D glasses. Everything blurs, and everything is doubled.
Ellis said it still isn’t quite an accurate picture of what it’s like to be drunk. An accurate picture would look normal, he said.
“Your eyesight doesn’t change,” Ellis said. “It’s the way your brain interprets what you see that changes.”
Teachers at AMS tried the course as well, one of whom was Verna Leonard, an 8th grade teacher of communication and information technology. She said it frightened her to think about translating her experience on the course to real life.
“This is why I don’t drink,” Leonard said. “It really scared me when I was dragging a cone; if you think about that being something or someone, that’s really scary. It’s really something they should take seriously.”
At the same time, smiles abounded as student after student ran over the cones, often dragging them along the pavement as they stuck to the cart’s undercarriage. Morbid humor rang through the air, with students teasing each other about long jail sentences and multiple homicides.
Ellis said he was okay with that, and even encouraged it.
“I told them they could go ahead and laugh at each other,” Ellis said. “We can make it fun, we can make it entertaining, but it’s very educational.”
Cooper Dixon, school resource officer at AMS, said he targeted the simulation to eighth graders for two reasons. First, he said, he wanted to reach them before they got their drivers’ licenses. Second, the students are at an age where they are easily influenced, he said, whether by peer pressure or by programs like this one.
“I was very satisfied,” Dixon said. “Their behavior was good, they seemed to enjoy it, and all of them seemed to grasp the message.”
Student Brandyn Johnson said he learned not only to never drive drunk, but also to never get in the car with a drunk driver. He also said the simulation had made his Saturday at school more fun.
“The only thing is, it’s still a Saturday, so you’re used to hanging out with your friends,” Johnson said.
With or without snow days and Saturday school, Dixon said he wanted to bring the simulation back as an annual event. He said it had been a good use of students’ extra time in school, and he knew it would when he first contacted Ellis about it.
“All of us at Armstrong would like to thank Mr. Ellis for taking time to come up here,” Dixon said. “If it will save one life, then it was a success.”