We teenagers know we shouldn't take part in underage drinking and, worse than that, in drunk driving. Yet, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 23 percent of teen drivers killed in 2005 were intoxicated.
Still, what has proven more effective in scaring us away from such unlawful behavior isn't public service announcements or NHTSA stats but, rather, personal experiences and tragedies.
A Harsh RealitySix years ago, the consequences of drunk driving hit my community, the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Summer was starting, and a teen driver was heading home from a friend's graduation party at 1:30 a.m. with four classmates in tow.
The 17-year-old was speeding at 70 mph down a rain-soaked, 25-mph residential street when he took a curve too fast. His out-of-control 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe then jumped the curb and crashed head-on into a large hardwood tree.
The driver fled on foot unharmed, but three of his friends were dead on the scene. The fourth friend lay seriously wounded in the blood and glass of the wreckage. Police were quick to arrive, and discovered open containers of alcohol within the totaled Chevy. For obvious reasons, the police and public assumed the teen driver had been drinking.
Before the "Lochmoor" incident (named for the street where the accident occurred), my friends and I didn't really talk about drunk driving, but the incident forced us to consider our actions. Now, six years later, the widely held mentality is "if you're going to drink, don't drive."
Real-Life TestimoniesOne of my 2007 classmates, a party planner, said, "Drinking...in someone's basement...you [the drinker] are only hurting yourself. But driving drunk is not OK because you are endangering other people." He's willing to stay sober to ensure the safety of his guests saying, "We'll even drive your car home for you, but you can't drive if you're going to drink at all."
Doug Roby, a social worker at my high school, Grosse Pointe South, agrees that ever since the accident in our town, more Grosse Pointe teens are recognizing the impact their choices can have on their lives, as well as the lives of their loved ones. "In my heart I feel there are more designated drivers than there used to be," he said, "but there are no hard facts to back this up."
However, the problem has not altogether evaporated. "Many kids aren't aware of how impaired they may be when they consider getting behind the wheel," he continued. "And some try to rationalize their choices based on the low-speed limits in our town. A drunk driver has no self-regulation skills."
Roby is also leery that the police in small towns may be too lenient on drunk teen drivers. Kids have told him that they had been "let off" of their charges because they were only a block or so from home.
A Stiff PenaltyIf you do get caught for underage drinking and driving, though, in Michigan the crime is punishable with a fine of up to $250 and/or up to 360 hours of community service, your driver license restricted for 30 days, four points on your driver record and a $500 driver responsible fee for two consecutive years. (The punishment meted out by other states varies.) Also, drunk driving constitutes a misdemeanor, and must be stated on all college and job applications in your future -- something many teens don't realize.
Case in point, the driver in the aforementioned Lochmoor accident is in jail today. He was convicted not only on the alcohol-related charges but also for three counts of homicide. The then 17-year-old, with his life ahead of him, may remain incarcerated until his 35th birthday.
Trying to HelpHigh school students acknowledge that teen drunk driving is still a problem since most opt to get behind the wheel rather than risk their parents finding out they were drinking. "They figure they will make it home fine...they worry that if they call someone their parents would be more likely to find out about their illegal habits," said one Grosse Pointe South High School student.
To help combat this common misconception, our school has instituted "safe rides" — a nationwide program which is absolutely confidential to eliminate any fears students may have of their parents finding out. Every weekend during the school year, a group of 10-12 drivers and escorts waits by the phone until the early morning hours. All a student has to do is dial 88-HOME-8 (the phone number varies based on location) and give their location and a car will pick them up and bring them home.
Underage drinking is never OK, much less legal, but if you're going to do it regardless, don't get behind the wheel. I only hope my peers will come to this conclusion on their own without having to see their friends die.
About the author: Emma Roy is a graduating high-school senior from Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
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