It was a bad scene in front of T.C. Williams High School: The front and back windshields of the white Honda Accord were shattered, the hood and roof were crushed, the sides were badly dented.
A group of students stood around the car yesterday, speculating.
"It's scary," said Kortnie Stukes, 17. "Like, did this person even survive?"
"Hold on," said Sarah Boyd, 16, pointing at a stain on the air bag, which hung limply off the steering wheel. "I see blood marks."
"Hey, hey," said Adria Attidore, 16. "Is this for real?"
It was. The Honda had been in an actual accident and was part of a campaign that many high schools launch each year before prom night, graduation and summertime to warn students of the dangers of driving drunk or recklessly.
The cars usually are provided by towing or insurance companies, and many school principals say they provide a visceral deterrent in a dangerous season.
"More young people lose their lives during prom and graduation season than any other time of year," said Theo L. Cramer, principal of Laurel High School in Prince George's County. This spring, Cramer's school displayed a destroyed pickup truck in which the occupants had been killed. "It really helps to drive the point home to students," he said.
The cars are part of larger campaigns against unsafe driving that include films, lectures and other props. Often students have friends or acquaintances who have been in accidents, and survivors sometimes speak at school assemblies when the wrecks are unveiled.
John Yore, the principal of Sherwood High School in Montgomery County, was nearly killed in January when a drunk driver plowed her car into the car his family was in. Afterward, letters poured in from students expressing concern.
"The fact that I almost died was not a good part of it, but the good part was that it provided me with an opportunity to speak with my students about the consequences of drinking and driving and making bad decisions," Yore said. "The students were more receptive to listening, given my experience." Some asked if the wrecked sedan in front of their school this spring was Yore's, which it wasn't.
Principals whose schools use the cars said they hadn't heard any objections about the graphic nature of the wrecks. If someone were to complain, Cramer said, "I'd much rather explain that program than to have to explain to a parent why we didn't do more." Still, some schools, citing liability and other concerns, do not display wrecked cars.
The Northern Virginia chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving also began visiting area schools and malls this year with a trailer containing a smashed-up pickup truck. An attached storyboard describes how it got that way, after a "designated driver" got drunk and rammed it into a tree, suffering severe brain damage and killing his best friend on his birthday.
"Like most exhibits of this type, you're not going to be able to measure its effects very easily," said Mike Green, the chapter's executive director. "But when they read the storyboard, they say, 'Wow . . . now one person's dead and another one is never going to be able to live his life.' "
Besides seeing a ruined car, students at Sherwood can try on special goggles that simulate alcohol-impaired vision or lie down in coffins intended to show the end result of reckless driving.
Many schools also host all-night parties on graduation and prom nights, with chartered buses and restrictions on leaving early, intended to enhance safety. T.C. Williams's graduation party will be tomorrow until 4:30 or 5 a.m. Saturday and will feature swimming, airbrush tattooing and karaoke.
Clarence Jones, drug prevention coordinator for Fairfax County schools, said many children have been desensitized to the images of wrecked cars by video games such as "Grand Theft Auto II." For that reason, he said, coffin displays might work better.
But at T.C. Williams, which has been displaying wrecked cars on its lawn for 10 years, students always gather to look inside, said Dona Hobbs, the school's test coordinator. This year some students added graffiti: "Don't Drink and Drive," read one side of the car. "Be Cool Stay in School" was on the other.
Students at the school usually hear, via the school's intercom, a story of what happened to the car. Whether the stories are exactly true isn't the point, Hobbs said; the point is to describe a scenario students will identify with.
"It usually involves beer, and every year we try to highlight a different race or ethnicity, so we target everyone," she said.
This year, however, no story was told. In October, a senior on her way to a crew event was killed in a car being driven by another T.C. student. That story, Hobbs said, was deterrent enough.