Rehab hospital program aimed at teen drinkers

Cruisin’ Not Boozin’ turns 15

If you’re anything like the staff at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital in Malvern, PA, you sometimes despair over senseless accidents that turn healthy young people into your patients. How many of your patients come in with traumatic brain injuries or spinal cord injuries resulting from alcohol-related car accidents? Ever wish you could do something about it?

In 1989, when a Bryn Mawr staff member noticed that half of the hospital’s adolescent patients were severely injured in alcohol-related accidents, a unique prevention program was born. Instead of just treating patients after the fact, the hospital began an aggressive campaign to stop these types of accidents in the first place. In 15 years, the Cruisin’ Not Boozin’ program has reached more than 500,000 teen-agers and young adults with the sobering message of what life is like for permanently injured people.

"Teen-agers might worry about a DUI conviction or even death as the worst possible outcomes of an alcohol or drug-related crash," says Carole Flounders, program coordinator. "But few stop to think about the devastating life long challenges that teens and their families face when a severe brain injury or spinal cord injury occurs. Statistically, severe injuries happen more often than deaths."

Between 12 and 15 former Bryn Mawr Rehab patients who were injured in alcohol-related accidents speak to students at 50-60 schools each year. During the months of April, May, and June — prime season for high school proms — Bryn Mawr ramps up its efforts.

The National Highway Safety Administration estimates that more than 1,200 alcohol-related fatalities will occur nationwide among teen-agers during prom season. In Pennsylvania alone last year, 535 people of all ages died, and more than 13,000 people were injured in drunk-driving accidents.

"The program serves so many purposes. It helps the general public understand what it feels like to be disabled. It also, of course, gives a very important message of warning about mixing drinking and driving," Flounders explains.

The program not only helps students, but it also helps the speakers. "Speaking has a therapeutic effect on the rehab patients. Many of them have attention deficit problems and memory problems, and preparing to speak in front of people helps them organize their thoughts and present themselves clearly," she adds. "The more they do it, the better they get at it. It also has an emotional effect because they get such positive feedback from the audiences."

There is nothing more compelling than a personal story, Flounders says. One of the former patients who speaks frequently for the program tells students about a devastating drunk-driving accident on his 21st birthday that left him in a coma for four months. The 35-year-old speaker was once a high school track star with dreams of running in the Olympics. Now he is paralyzed on the left side and can’t run or even walk very well. He also has lingering speech and cognitive problems.

"I just came back from a program today at a high school that is having a prom this Saturday, and you could have heard a pin drop in there," Flounders points out. "They were totally in awe of the personal testimony of what happened to the speaker."

Speakers describe what they were like before, the decisions they made that led to the accident, the accident itself, and what life is like for them now. "People don’t understand what brain injury or spinal cord injury is all about and what it takes to go through the rehabilitation process when you’ve lost your ability to walk, speak, swallow, recognize letters, or even your own family," she says. "They help the audience understand what it feels like to start from scratch again."

The program measures its success through an evaluation survey standardized by the National Highway Safety Administration. The survey identifies and measures attitudes about drinking, driving, use of seat belts, parental communication regarding alcohol or drugs, and alcohol use vs. drug use. The anonymous survey is administered prior to the Cruisin’ Not Boozin’ program and immediately after. The results also illuminate the scope of the problem at individual schools so more action can be taken.

In the 2002-2003 school year, more than 3000 students at 17 schools completed the survey. Following the presentation, 85.6% of high school students and 88.4 % of middle school students stated they were more aware of the consequences of drinking and driving than they were prior to the Cruisin’ Not Boozin’ program assembly. About 85% of high school students and 95% of middle school students believed they would not drive in the future while impaired, based on what they heard during the assembly.

The program also participates in the Chester County Council On Addictive Diseases’ efforts to educate people arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The speakers present to about 3,000 offenders a year. Bryn Mawr also serves as a designated community service site where DUI offenders can satisfy their mandated volunteer hours.

Need more information?

Carole Flounders, Program Coordinator, Cruisin’ Not Boozin’, Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, 414 Paoli Pike, P.O. Box 3007, Malvern, PA 19355-3300. Phone: (610) 251-5465. E-mail: cnb@mlhs.org.