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Preventing Drunk Driving
With Kurt Erickson
Executive Director, Washington Regional Alcohol Program

Thursday, May 10, 2001

With prom season and summer months on the horizon, many students aren't focused on safe driving habits, but the number of drunk-driving accidents involving teens is increasing. A national program affiliated with some Montgomery County schools, "Every 15 Minutes," hopes to change that. The two-day program is named for the statistic that every 15 minutes someone dies from an alcohol-related accident, according to drunk-driving-prevention groups.

Kurt Erickson is the executive director of the Washington Regional Alcohol Coalition (WRAP), an award-winning public-private coalition formed to fight drunk driving, drugged driving and underage drinking in the Washington area. Prior to joining WRAP in 1999, he worked for the American Lung Association of Northern Virginia for 10 years. He lives with his wife and children in Waterford, Va.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Kurt Erickson. To start, can you tell us a little bit about how the "Every 15 Minutes" program came into being, and what its successes have been?

Kurt Erickson: In short, "Every 15 Minutes" is an interactive program designed for high school students and based on a drunk driving crash involving the same students. "Every 15 Minutes" has been around for at least two decades and was designed to demonstrate the wide-ranging impact which a drunk driving crash can have on high school students, their families and the community as a whole -- as all play part in the mock crash scene and its aftermath.

The program seems well regarded and has often been implemented in a number of local counties including Montgomery County in Maryland.

Its success, however, will be measured on how integral of a role it plays on sustainable, year-round prevention and education efforts aimed at reducing underage drinking and drunk driving.

Washington DC: Do you think that the young adults are going to listen to older adults about drinking and driving?

Education is the only prevention.
Even with education, there will still be those who do not care.

So what are we to do?

Kurt Erickson: Good question, Washington, D.C.

However, education is certainly not the only mode of prevention. So is: social norming; reducing youth access to alcohol; fostering responsible alcohol service and sales; and -- legislatively -- championing tough and effective deterrents to teen drinking and impaired driving.

As for the age-related portion of your question, it's true that teens seem more receptive to those they can more likely relate to. Hence the reason we've witnessed the success of a number of peer-mentoring initiatives including Greater Washington high school students serving as mentors to area junior high students. In addition to the messenger, the message needs to be made equally palatable and effective to this target audience.

Mont. Co.: Is drunk driving on prom night really a bigger problem than other weekend nights? I thought that after-proms parties had really cut down on prom night injuries?

Kurt Erickson: Succinctly, Montgomery County, yes.

Let's take this upcoming weekend for instance. While last year in this country 38-percent of all fatal traffic crashes were alcohol-related, during this same weekend last year -- and one featuring a number of prom activities -- that percentage of alcohol-related traffic deaths jumped to 51-percent.

In fact, nationwide during the prom / graduation weekends of mid-April through mid-June, more than half of all U.S. traffic fatalities involve alcohol.

Unfortunately, this celebrated time of year can be a deadly time of year as well.

Maryland: Do you have any suggestions for how a parent can keep her child and her friends off the road after drinking? Most kids hide their drinking from us ... do we tell them that they can drink in our homes as long as no one drives home? Since they're most likely going to drink (even though I don't support underage drinking) how do we keep them safe? I can't lock my daughter in her room forever. Any advice you have would be appreciated.

Kurt Erickson: As a parent, myself, Maryland, it's a tough role.

However, studies time and time again have demonstrated that parents can have a significant -- if not strongest -- impact as to whether their children will engage in risky behaviors including the use of alcohol.

The Institute for Youth Development based right here in Washington, D.C. says it best, "children whose parents tell them to avoid alcohol are less likely to drink alcohol."

Even more so, the federally-sponsored National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health)found that students were protected against alcohol use if they felt parental connectedness -- defined as a sense of closeness to parents and feeling cared for by the same.

Greater Washington law enforcement has taken a "zero-tolerance" approach to enforcing teen drinking making it a crime in D.C., MD and VA for teens to possess, consume, transport and purchase alcohol in this area. Fines range from $ 300 to $ 1,000 as well as a one-year suspension of one's driver's license.

As for simply "sheltering" your children and their friends by letting them party at your house, beware.

Not only may you be enabling such behavior, you'll likely be breaking the law, as well.

While in some cases it may be lawful for parents to provide alcohol to their own kids, it's unlawful if these same adults allow their children's friends to drink alcohol in their home. And if these same "friends" later are involved in a car crash, for instance, the providing parents may be responsible for injuries, property damages and wrongful death.

Silver Spring, MD: Why are teens being sold alcohol? They should have to show their ID.

washingtonpost.com: Are teens being sold alcohol? How is liquor finding its way into the hands of teenagers?

Kurt Erickson: Good question, Silver Spring.

In your own county of Montgomery, a recent sting operation revealed "reasons" for underage alcohol sales as "ages are hard to tell," "the clerk is really busy," "language barriers," employees not knowing "how to find a date of birth on a Maryland driver's license" and clerks leaving their glasses at home.

These excuses no doubt count for Montgomery County's recent 55-percent increase in local teen drinking busts from just two years ago.

However, while technology and the Internet have provided a proliferation of sophisticated fake I.D.s, technology may also be their eventual defeat.

Already employed in the District of Columbia, advanced document verification systems enable retailers and bar owners to determine not only a customer's age but also the validity of this same customer's driver's license or government-issued I.D.

No hard to tell ages here. Even busy clerks will be amazed as to how quickly these verification systems work. Language barriers? No problem as long as an employee can read just two English words "Yes" or "No" regarding a pending sale. And for those clerks not knowing how to read a Maryland driver's license or for those whom have left their glasses at home, no problem as these same machines can also be programmed to only open a cash drawer for alcohol sales only when an I.D. has been verified as that of someone age 21 years of age or older.

The failure to employ technology in the fight against underage drinking by a county which has embraced technology and heralds the fact that nearly half of its private employers are in high tech fields is simply a disconnect.

McLean, VA: Sir, your legal analysis was quite correct. The parent's could be liable for accidents occurring, not even directly after, but even the next day. Additionally, they could be held liable for any criminal activity or other negligence attributed to the teens up to, and through the following day. Of course, the parents would also be in violation of local liquor distribution laws. Additionally, if, God forbid, any of the teens had reactions to the alcohol, or injured themselves while being under the influence of ANY alcohol (not necessarily drunk) the distributing parents would likely be held financially liable for any medical charges or, in the extreme case, liable for wrongful death. So, parents, be careful out there. Prom night can spell disaster for YOU to, even if your child isn't involved.

Kurt Erickson: Yup.

Arlington, VA: Mr. Erickson,

What's your opinion on states continuing to lower the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers--from 0.010 to 0.008 or even 0.005--when it seems that the real problem is the habitual drunk drivers who are typically in the 0.020 range? Shouldn't state lawmakers be focusing their efforts on permanently taking these people who do the most damage off the streets?

Kurt Erickson: You'll be happy to know, Arlington, that with Maryland's passage this year of legislation which lowers the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for being charged with drunk driving, D.C. MD and VA are all at the federally-pushed .08 level which now shifts the focus to those drunk drivers responsible for a disproportionate amount of drunk driving crashes as well as those overrepresented in fatal car crashes...the repeat and high BAC drunk driver.

Just since this past July (2000), convicted repeat and high BAC drivers in VA are looking a mandatory jail time -- event for first offenses. In addition, DC also passed similar legislation mandating incarceration for those drivers convicted with BACs of .20 and .25 - the latter being more than three times the legal limit.

There's little doubt that we can all agree that such drivers need tougher sentences.

Alexandria, VA: Has the raising of the drinking age to 21 resulted in more pressure to "binge" drink, since 18- to 20-year olds cannot relax and learn how to socially drink - like in the old days by having a sherry with a professor and discussing world affairs.

Kurt Erickson: Yikes, Alexandria. "Having a sherry w/ a professor discussing world affairs?" The elbow patches on your tweed jacket are fraying!

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the U.S.' minimum drinking age laws have reduced traffic deaths amongst drivers ages 18-20 by 13-percent and have saved an estimated 19,121 lives since 1975.

Your theory seems to espouse that the reasoning for binge drinking by a 21 year-old is to make up for the three years previous he or she was unable to purchase alcohol.

Trust me, I don't believe that's the case.

Manassas, VA: I had an incident last fall that still bothers me over whether I handled it right or blew it. My 16 year old neighbor's daughter called my house at about 1 am on a Friday night asking if I would come pick her up at a party where her "ride" had somehow become intoxicated. I knew her dad was out of town on business her mom was working (a nurse who frequently works 11-7's). Of course I went and picked her up. I know she told her folks because her dad thanked me later in the week. Where I think I blew it was not calling the police after getting her home. It was pretty obvious to me that a lot of underage drinking was going on without a whole lot of adult supervision. I was afraid that if I called the cops, my neighbor's daughter would have taken the wrath of her friends as I'm sure the cops would have come down hard. I've met some of these kids and aside from being typical teenagers, they are good kids. I guess I also was concerned they might get records from a single incident that would haunt them forever.

Did I blow it?

Kurt Erickson: Not to replicate the sarcasm of The Washington Post's Carolyn Hax, but let's see:

You valiantly stepped in to rescue a youth whose only other mode of transportation was with a drunk driver. She admirably informed her folks on her own volition. And her father thanked you for quite possibly saving her life.

Blow it? No. In fact, with nearly three out of every ten Americans being involved in an alcohol-related crash at some time in their lives, you quite possibly saved a life that night.

However, your question is one based in ethics as much as it is in laws. And personal ethics are just that. Personal.

The only thing to question is whether you could have been equally impactful for those left at the party. Calling law enforcement is one option but so are other intervention steps like making sure each kid was provided the appropriate reprimand followed by a ticket to safety (i.e. safe and sober ride home, etc.).

Washington, DC: Kurt: What are the three things concerned community members should do this season to help prevent drunk-driving incidents?

Kurt Erickson: Thanks for the question, Washington, D.C.

It's interesting that you asked for three focal points as my organization, the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP), has always contended that the fight against impaired driving and underage drinking is going to be won only by a combination of:

1. Education
2. Enforcement
3. And Legislation.

This spring, community members can demonstrate their concern by making teen drinking unacceptable, maintaining open lines of communication with their children and supporting those local prom and graduation offerings which are ushering in a "safe teen season" -- and one filled not with tragedy but with precious memories.

N.W. Washington: In response, or in support of Alexandria's comment-
Changing the drinking age to 21 does arguably change the dynamics of binge drinking, not only for 21 year olds, but for 18 year olds as well. If for example, you are going to college, and, it being the first time away from home, you are introduced to drinking by college peers, you don't have the experience of drinking in a more regulated setting to know what your limits and tolerances are. That is, I think, one of the biggest arguments for parents sitting a child down before he/she goes off to college, and getting them drunk. That way, they can recognize the signs in their own bodies, and they have a safe, protective environment in which to ride out the effects. I guess this is a slightly off-center belief, but it is one that, I think, may have some merit. Of course, I don't condone underage drinking and driving, or unsupervised underage drinking etc. But teaching a child about his/her personal reactions to alcohol consumption should be a parent's responsibility, and not a frat brother's.

Kurt Erickson: So let me get this right, NW Washington. If I want to teach my child how to drive and what his "limits and tolerances" for this area's roadways hazards, I should cut the brake lines and send 'em out on 495?

I get the end of your goal, just not the means.

There are a number of means available to better inform today's teens on the dangers of underage drinking and impaired driving. While yesterday's methods included black-and-white highway patrol movies featuring mangled cars, etc., today's education vehicles include specially outfitted motor vehicles designed to simulate impaired driving, Fatal Vision goggles, trauma center visits, teen mentoring programs and the like.

Yes, it's true that going away to college may open both welcomed and unwelcomed doors of opportunity. But I'm not sure you're going to deadbolt one of those unwelcomed doors simply by getting junior intoxicated before he's off to school.

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company