Keith Pressman rolled his wheelchair toward the edge of the stage at Arlington's Washington-Lee High School and looked straight at a cluster of students in the audience.
"I hope my accident can teach you guys a lesson not to drink and drive," he said.
Last September after a football game, Pressman and some of his friends went to a party. He had a few drinks -- grain alcohol mixed with fruit punch, he recalled. Then he drove his friends home.
"I was not really blasted, but I was drunk enough to fall asleep," Pressman said. Alone in the car, he dozed off about 2:30 a.m. and crashed his mother's Chevrolet Cavalier into a tree on Wilson Boulevard. The impact fractured two vertebrae, and Pressman, 18, is now a quadriplegic.
Yesterday he brought his story home to a group of classmates and community leaders at the opening of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program's Project Graduation, an annual effort by businesses, government and schools to prevent alcohol-related accidents during the season of proms and graduations.
From 1983 to 1985 in the Washington area, there were 107 alcohol-related traffic deaths involving drivers under age 21 -- about 20 percent of all the alcohol-related traffic fatalities -- according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. During May and June of those three years, seven persons under age 21 died in alcohol-related crashes in this area.
More than 150 schools from Prince William County to Anne Arundel County are helping promote the campaign with parent meetings, slide presentations and mock traffic accident demonstrations, as well as a flurry of posters, buttons and bumper stickers bearing the message, "Arrive Alive -- Don't Drink and Drive."
The Washington Regional Alcohol Program, which launched "Project Graduation" four years ago, will sponsor a free dial-a-ride program on prom and graduation nights.
"It may not be cool to be picked up by your mom or your dad or a Red Top cab," Pressman told the students yesterday. "But think about spending months and months in the hospital -- or maybe death. I was lucky to recover from my accident."
Students Against Driving Drunk chapters in many schools are distributing copies of a "contract for life" to be signed by parents and their teen-agers. In it, the parents promise to "come and get you at any hour, any place, no questions asked and no argument at that time, or I will pay for a taxi to bring you home safely" and to "seek safe, sober transportation home if I am ever in a situation where I have had too much to drink."
In turn, the teen-agers pledge to call for advice or transportation if they ever have too much to drink or are being driven by a drunk friend.
On a bulletin board in Washington-Lee High School, the messages are vivid and pragmatic: On one poster, a car-sized beer can has collided with the front of a red car in a knot of crumpled metal under the caption, "Wasted." Another poster, a black-and-white photograph of an open hearse, reads: "Drive Drunk and You May Get to Ride in One of Those Funky Black Limousines."
And there is the message brought by students like Pressman.
"It's definitely made a mark, especially on my friends," he said. "I think they're more aware . . . . I think it's stopped a lot of people from going home from a party drunk. You don't think it will happen to you, but they think, 'Well, Keith just had his accident . . . . ' "
Rhonda Leavenworth, a Washington-Lee junior, is president of the school's chapter of Students Against Driving Drunk, which she said has grown from four members in 1981 to 80 now. She said a lot of students joined after they heard about Pressman's accident.