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Drinking and Driving: Will Your Child Become a Statistic?

Just two days ago, another 15-year old child was added to the overwhelming statistics of drunk-driving, related deaths. One minute, he's full of vitality and attending our local high school, the next his unsuspecting parents are identifying him in a local morgue. The harsh reality of this brutal scenerio is sometimes very difficult to comprehend.

"Where did I go wrong?" "Didn't I talk enough with my child?" "I thought he knew better..." "I assumed he was just at a friend's house..."

These, and various other queries, are all similar questions parents tend to ask themselves after an incident or accident involving DUI or DWI (Driving Under the Influence, or Driving While Intoxicated).

According to MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism),

  • Parents' drinking behavior and favorable attitudes about drinking have been positively associated with adolescents' initiating and continued drinking. (NIAAA, 1997)
  • Youth who drink before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21. (NIAAA, 1997)
  • Underage drinkers are responsible for between 10 and 20 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States. (NAS, 2003)
  • In 2002, 29 percent of 15 to 20-year-old drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes had been drinking. Twenty-four percent were intoxicated.
  • Research continues to show that young drivers between 15 and 20 years old are more often involved in alcohol-related crashes than any other comparable age group. Alcohol-crash involvement rates, share of the alcohol-crash problem and alcohol-crash risk all reach their peaks with young drivers, with the peaks for fatal crashes occurring at age 21. (NHTSA, 2001)
  • Based on the latest mortality data available, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people from 15 to 20 years old. (NHTSA, 2003)

Of course, statistically speaking, the list could go on and on. All too often, we as parents get caught up in the daily grind of work, household chores, and other engagements. Sometimes we forget how to prioritize our committments. Ironically though, it is our teenage children who suffer from our own strategies on making their lives more comfortable.

John J. Berrio wrote a shocking but enlightening, infamous piece on teenage vehicular-related death based on a friend's son:

Only 17

Agony claws my mind. I am a statistic. When I first got here I felt very much alone. I was overwhelmed by grief, and I expected to find sympathy.

I found no sympathy. I saw only thousands of others whose bodies were as badly mangled as mine. I was given a number and placed in a category. The category was called "Traffic Fatalities."

The day I died was an ordinary school day. How I wish I had taken the bus! But I was too cool for the bus. I remember how I wheedled the car out of Mom. "Special favor," I pleaded. "All the kids drive." When the 2:50 p.m. bell rang, I threw my books in the locker ... free until tomorrow morning! I ran to the parking lot, excited at the thought of driving a car and being my own boss.

It doesn't matter how the accident happened. I was goofing off -- going too fast, taking crazy chances. But I was enjoying my freedom and having fun. The last thing I remember was passing an old lady who seemed to be going awfully slow. I heard a crash and felt a terrific jolt. Glass and steel flew everywhere. My whole body seemed to be turning inside out. I heard myself scream.

Suddenly, I awakened. It was very quiet. A police officer was standing over me. I saw a doctor. My body was mangled. I was saturated with blood. Pieces of jagged glass were sticking out all over. Strange that I couldn't feel anything. Hey, don't pull that sheet over my head. I can't be dead. I'm only 17. I've got a date tonight. I'm supposed to have a wonderful life ahead of me. I haven't lived yet. I can't be dead.

Later I was placed in a drawer. My folks came to identify me. Why did they have to see me like this? Why did I have to look at Mom's eyes when she faced the most terrible ordeal of her life? Dad suddenly looked very old. He told the man in charge, "Yes, he's our son."

The funeral was weird. I saw all my relatives and friends walk toward the casket. They looked at me with the saddest eyes I've ever seen. Some of my buddies were crying. A few of the girls touched my hand and sobbed as they walked by.

Please, somebody -- wake me up! Get me out of here. I can't bear to see Mom and Dad in such pain. My grandparents are so weak from grief they can barely walk. My brother and sister are like zombies. They move like robots. In a daze. Everybody. No one can believe this. I can't believe it, either.

Please, don't bury me! I'm not dead! I have a lot of living to do! I want to laugh and run again. I want to sing and dance. Please don't put me in the ground! I promise if you give me just one more chance, God, I'll be the most careful driver in the whole world. All I want is one more chance. Please, God, I'm only 17.

By John Berrio _____________________________________________________________

This well-known story has been circulated across the globe. Also known as "Dead at 17," and "Please God, I'm Only 17" is a stanching piece that has hailed teenagers and parents alike.

As a ritual, this literature is ground into the core of my thought processes. Not too long ago, we were all faced with enticements of "...let's go to that party...", "...come, on...it's only a few miles up the road. He's not drunk...he's only had a few beers...." "Sure she can drive...she's done this a million times before..." And all too often, teenagers fall to peer pressure because they want to be cool, popular or part of the "in-crowd." Sadly, many do become victims of psychological pressure tactics.

There is not a week that goes by that I don't think of "Only 17." Being a mother of two teenage kids, the thought is a constant in my mind. As a parent, it is imperative that we adamantly involve ourselves in our childrens' lives. I'm not saying that we become overbearing and intrusive, but we must demand intolerance of drinking and driving. While most teenagers will experience with alcohol at some point in their growing-up years, we have to learn to expect it. It is not a question of if, it's a matter of when.

And like all parents, we don't want to accept the fact that our child or children would engage in sometimes-lethal behavior. But it can happen to the best of families. Drinking and driving doesn't simply effect a certain stereotypical group of persons - it doesn't have a preference of social, economical, racial, geographical, and sexual lines. No, peer pressure is out there, and if you're not paying attention and interactively pursuing the matter, your child could become a statistic.

One of my beliefs is to continuously talk with my children about drinking. I wasn't born yesterday, so I know that alcohol is waiting at the ready. What do I do about it? For starters, I have ritually engrained the fact that drinking and driving kills. Period. Since they were old enough to understand the principles of drinking and driving, I have made it a point to "be there" for my kids. You see, one of the biggest problems with teenagers is that if you isolate them with negative communication, it can virtually destroy any attempt of "keeping them safe."

A encouraging opening line to your teenager might be, "...although I don't condone drinking, please call me - no matter where you are, no matter what time it is, whether you're drunk or not, or if you're somewhere you weren't supposed to be. I'll come and pick you up. It's not cool to get into a car with someone who's been drinking - ever. I promise not to be angry with you. I'd rather you come home alive than dead."

This is something that I say to my own teenagers - every chance I get. And with a season of holidays upon us, it is even more vital that we communicate with our kids. Holiday statistics show that there is, on average, a nearly 50% overall chance of a traffic-related fatality. What unnecassary risks are we willing to take? Not only is talking with our children crucial, it is important to stay involved in our childrens' lives. Knowing where your child is - is NOT intrusive. Knowing what your child is doing - is NOT intrusive.

Set guidelines for your teenagers. We can't protect them from everything - that's a fact of life. There are just some things that we can't do as parents - but what we can do is become active participants in their lives. Just as we support our children at athletic events like football games, cheerleading sessions, field and track, (just to name a few), we can support our teenagers from the sidelines...giving them impromptu examples on how to be successful, and how to lead life in a fun but responsible manner.

Here are some tips at developing open communication lines with your teenagers:

1. Cell phones are valuable assets in keeping up with your kids. Make sure you allow them to use them if going "out to a friend's house..." or "party." Cell phones give kids a sense of responsibility and most often, they will use them to phone you if they're caught in a desperate situation.

2. Keep negative thoughts to yourself. We may not like the fact that our kids might drink; we might even be boiling over with anger - but if they do drink, don't slam them for it. The next time, they may not call you.

3. Access. If you know that there might be a possibility of drinking, talk to your teenagers. Don't assume that Billy-down-the-street who comes from a "good" family won't be offering liquor or beer. Reiterate your position on drinking in a positive declaration, but at the same time, reinforce your availability to them. This could be a make-or-break life, preserving decision on your part.

4. Resolve. When we acknowledge the fact that kids may drink alcoholic beverages, we aren't so shocked and disturbed when it does occur. The number 1 rule for combatting drinking and driving issues is to stay informed, stay alert and never assume anything. We were all teenagers once and we know how quickly events can change for the better or worse. It's up to us as parents to instill proper attitudes about drinking and driving so to prevent alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

In closing, I encourage folks to let their children read, "Only 17." It is, by far, the most impressive piece of literature of our time. If you don't know how to talk to your children, seek private counsel so you can. Our youth is the vital component our existence - they are, afterall our leaders of tomorrow. Invest in them today by being an integral part of their lives.

©2004 - All Rights Reserved.

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