Northern California, February 2002: A 20-year-old woman lost control of her car and crashed it at about 2:15 a.m. She had just left a downtown area where she had spent the evening drinking in several bars, despite being underage. Three of her four passengers, men between 20 and 22 years old, died at the scene. She was hospitalized, and authorities had manslaughter charges awaiting her when she recovered.
The story is true, and terrible, but not particularly unusual. Similar accounts of drunken driving accidents involving teens, young adults and older drivers appear in the pages of newspapers and on evening news broadcasts weekly.
Drunk driving is so common and prevalent that the toll these accidents take seems impossible to calculate. But government agencies, in their ongoing efforts to reduce these accidents and fatalities, do try.
The numbers they come up with are staggering:
- In recent years, nearly 40 percent of deaths in auto accidents have been alcohol-related.
- Every 30 minutes, someone in the U.S. dies in an alcohol-related crash.
- In 2000, 16,653 people were killed in crashes involving alcohol. An estimated 600,000 more are injured every year in alcohol-related crashes.
These numbers are more heartbreaking when you consider that young people are over-represented in them due to several facts: They are less experienced drivers; they are less experienced drinkers and don't know their limits; they're more likely to also be experimenting with drugs, which further impairs driving; and finally, many think they're invincible and haven't learned responsible behavior.
Why does it continue to happen? According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, many communities and families regard underage drinking as a rite of passage that does not require attention. For too many, alcohol is a forgotten and ignored drug problem - until something tragic occurs. But studies have shown that alcohol kills more people under 21 than all other illicit drugs combined.
Other disturbing information from MADD: The earlier children drink, the more likely they are to become alcoholics as adults, and the more likely they are to drive drunk. As many as eight young Americans die in alcohol-related traffic crashes daily. As if the personal price for injuries and young lives isn't enough, underage drinking also costs America more than $52 billion every year.
Much of that figure represents taxpayer money that funds police, emergency medical crews, hospitals, courts, jails and abuse recovery programs. Drunk driving also affects insurance rates: claims payments for damage and liability are costly for companies and drive up rates for all insurance consumers.
For example, government analysts believe alcohol-related crashes accounted for about 15% of auto insurance payments in California and New York. Based on that, industry experts believe that reducing alcohol-related crashes by 10 percent would save $260 million in claims payments and loss adjustment expenses in California, and $120 million in New York.
The following are some of the most widely embraced methods for combating the toll of drunk driving on the country. All of these are in place in some, but not all, states:
- Serving Intoxicated Patrons law: Undercover police officers can enforce laws against serving alcohol to intoxicated bar and restaurant patrons.
- Sobriety checkpoint programs: Continued intensive enforcement with highly visible sobriety checkpoints.
- Primary Belt laws: These allow law enforcement to ticket drivers for not using a safety belt without requiring the driver to have committed another offense. Unbelted drivers account for 75% of impaired driving fatalities.
Many motorists look to government for solutions such as these to help ensure their safety. As a private citizen, what can you do?
Lobby for passage of stiffer fines and increased checkpoints. Let your elected representatives know you support these.
Avoid driving during times that drunk drivers are most likely to be on the road: very early morning weekend hours (midnight to 6 a.m.) and afternoons and evenings of major holidays and lesser holidays known for drinking, such as Superbowl Sunday and St. Patrick's Day.
Be a positive role model to young people. Show children that alcohol is not required for relaxation and enjoyment. Talk to children about consequences before they try drinking. While many parents believe they're safe until high school, studies and statistics show that's not true. Many children try alcohol for the first time (how old were you?) in middle school. Establish open communication, and if you ever suspect a problem, act fast - get answers from the child, and treatment if necessary.
Be a responsible host to all. We've all heard it countless times, but how often do we practice it? If you're worried about a guest or relative's ability to drive, take the keys and call a cab. Doing so could save lives.
Volunteer to be the driver. Work with young people to establish a "pickup anytime" policy to encourage them to come to you when they need you.