MADD Canada teaching Osborne School students how to handle uncomfortable, dangerous situations

Students at Osborne School will take part in MADD Canada's SmartWheels program this week. (Kelly Skjerven/Daily Herald)

MADD Canada will be presenting their virtual SmartWheels program to grade 4 to 7 students at Osborne School on Tuesday.

The program covers many important topics around impaired driving, including how to speak to adults who may be getting behind the wheel impaired, said MADD chief operating officer, Dawn Regan.

SmartWheels was first brought to Saskatchewan during the 2019-2020 school year and is made possible through SGI and SLGA funding. Before the pandemic, the program operated in a decked-out RV mobile classroom. The RV can fit around 32 students and is wheelchair accessible.

The RV includes a movie theatre and tablets. The tablets present scenarios of impaired driving to students. Regan said the best part of the program is when students put on a pair of virtual reality goggles so they can see what driving looks and feels like under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

“They’re put in a situation where a crash almost happens or there’s a pedestrian that walks in front of them,” Regan explained. “These things are going to happen and our reaction time is so much slower when we’re impaired.”

Students won’t be able to experience the bus and use the virtual reality goggles this year due to the pandemic. Instead, they’ll take part in an online program within their classrooms.

The purpose of SmartWheels is to change the generational thinking of youth.

“As they get older and they are faced with situations they themselves when they’re getting a license, they’ll look back on what they learned from this program and realize that it’s never OK to drive impaired,” Regan explained.

As discussions about alcohol starts in schools as early as Grade 4, MADD believes it’s important to reach out to students at the same time to teach them what impaired driving looks like.

MADD presenters also explain to students what alcohol and drugs, especially cannabis, do to the body. Regan said MADD makes sure students are informed about the dangers but are “very careful” and mindful of the age group they are presenting too.

“We’re following a curriculum that’s set by the province so that we’re not going too far in our messaging,” Regan said.

The principal of Osborne school said what students learn when they are young often carries with them later in life, which is why it’s important to have these conversations early.

“I don’t think it’s ever too early to start having these conversations. These issues certainly have an impact as the kids get older but if we wait until they start driving, I think sometimes that’s too late,” Greg Walker said.

MADD hopes to reach 15,000 students a year in Saskatchewan with their presentations. Although this year, they had to change things.

Regan said the online program is very similar to the in-person one. Students will complete quizzes to find out what they know about impaired driving. Students are also given scenarios about how they may be impacted by impaired driving, even if they aren’t getting behind the wheel themselves anytime soon.

Scenarios focus on uncomfortable and unsafe situations youth may find themselves in, such as being at a wedding or other event with their parents who are both drinking. Students are given the power and tools to know what to do in the event that a trusted adult gets in the driver seat while impaired.

Regan said that past findings indicate that 79 per cent of students said that, after the MADD presentation, they feel comfortable talking to an adult and telling them not to drive if they are impaired.

“That’s a key number for us,” Regan said.

She added one situation that students may unfortunately find themselves in is the adult does end up driving impaired even after they are told not to. Regan hopes youth will call 9-1-1 if this situation arises.

“We’ve had examples in this country of 9-year-olds calling 9-1-1 on a family member because they’re in the car with their loved ones and the loved one is driving impaired,” Regan said.

“The fact is our lives matter and it doesn’t matter how old you are, you deserve to be safe and so that’s the message we say to young people,” she added.

Regan said she realizes this is a difficult conversation for anyone to have, especially young people, but it all comes down to ensuring no one is put at risk.

Students will also hear from Dylan Krill, a victim of impaired driving, during the presentation. Krill was in an impaired driving crash that killed his two best friends who were 12 years old. He shares with students about what it was like to find out what happened to his two friends.

“Every program that we do for youth, we’ll always feature victims story and the reason for that is it brings it home to people,” Regan said. “It brings it home to the young person who recognizes that this could happen to my family.”

Up to four people a day are killed by impaired driving and many are injured in crashes that involve drugs and/or alcohol.

Regan said “students can’t help but be impacted by it” when they hear from friends and families who have lost loved ones from impaired driving.

Regan added it’s unfortunate MADD won’t be able to put on the same presentation they had before the pandemic with the SmartWheels RV. She hopes next year facilitators will be able to present to students in-person.

She also thanks SGI and SLGA for their funding and support, adding MADD would not be able to put the program on without them.

According to MADD’s website, the mobile classroom is only available in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

“I know we’re saving lives with this program and we couldn’t be prouder of bringing it to young people,” Regan said.