Drunk-driving Simulator Steers Some To Question Office

Drug And Alcohol Programs May End Up Losing Autonomy

May 05, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Brian Parker climbed shakily out of the red sports car Thursday morning and vowed on the spot never to drive drunk again.

After downing eight drinks in a row, the 18-year-old basketball standout at MeadeHigh School couldn't make it around the collision course. He knockeddown one cone after the next and then ran smack into two kids.

"It was scary," he said, taking a deep breath after his rocky ride in the Dodge Drunk Driving Simulator. "I know I wouldn't ever drivedrunk, now that I know what it feels like."

Parker was one of thousands of Anne Arundel high school and college students taking part in a massive anti-drunken-driving campaign sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the county Office of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

With the help of MADD and the U.S. Department of Transportation, county drug czar Huntley J. Cross brought the simulator to four high schools and the community college last week. It was the most sweeping campaign Dodge had ever undertaken with the computerized Daytona, which simulates drunken driving by delaying steering and braking responses.

By giving students a chance to experience the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol, Cross said, he hoped to save lives. At least four Old Mill High students have died in alcohol-related accidents this school year, said Annie Powell, administrator of the Central Maryland chapter of MADD.

The simulator program was a splashy success, drawing scores of television crews and county officials. Everyone wanted a chance to sit behind the wheel.

But the flashy appeal also renewed debate among some educators and community leaders over whether Drug and Alcohol Programs emphasizes style over substance.

Few people question the county's commitment to winning the war on drugs. But some community leaders say the county program should tryharder to reach those most in need -- the neighborhoods where open-air drug markets flourish, the teen-agers experimenting with hallucinogenics, the poor who see dealing as the easiest entrance to a better life.

County Executive Robert R. Neall's transition team praised the office's visibility, but criticized its overall effectiveness.

In a report that prompted Neall to propose moving the office under the county Health Department's control, the transition team suggested setting clear goals and tracking accomplishments. "Give this office a limited amount of time to design goals and an action plan," the report stated.

"We felt to a certain extent that the office has excelled in public relations, but that goal-setting and actual accomplishments were marginal at best," said Jeanette Wessel, who led the 17-member committee that studied the county executive's office.

Wessel blamed part of the problem on "a lack of direction from the previous administration." She pointed out that the office wasn't even mentioned in reports published by former County Executive O. James Lighthizer.

Former County Councilman Michael F. Gilligan, a member of the transition team's executive committee, said the drug program took its cue from the last administration. "There was a lot of flash and not much else," he said.

Defending his program, Cross questioned how fighting drug and alcohol abuse should be measured. He said the public relations "delivered a message to 10,000 people in this county."

"I don't know what they mean by goal-setting and accomplishments," he said. "We're not just a gimmick office. If you ask the kids, you'll see that we have accomplished a lot. Are we successful if we stop one kid from using drugs?"

His 10-member staff was surprised by the criticism and unsettled by the prospect of shifting to the Health Department, though Neall said it was only an administrative move. While unveiling his budget Tuesday, the county executive mentioned the reorganization and said: "Is that because I don't like it? No. It's because that's where they can do the best job."

The department runs two highly touted outpatient treatment programs. County Health Officer Thomas Andrews said he supported bringing the prevention and treatment programs together. Calling prevention and treatment "two sides of the samecoin," he said the move will improve the county's efforts.

Andrews and Neall, who served as the state's drug czar, have stressed the importance of grass-roots community work. Andrews said he wants to tailor programs to each community.

That pleases Richard Johnson, one of three members of the Office of Drug and Alcohol Programs who work in the community.

"I've heard (criticism that) you can't win the drug war with Frisbees and T-shirts," he said. "That's a little unfair, but we definitely need even stronger efforts, especially in gettingthe communities involved."

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