Brad and Jed Bulla. (Courtesy of the author)

What are the chances your child would ride with a drinking driver?

Universally we can agree that riding with a drinking driver is never a good idea. Still, people continue to make this choice. I know, because this was a choice that my son Jedidiah made.

Jedidiah, or Jed as we called him, had copper-colored hair and a talent for playing the fiddle. Jed was a dreamer. He dreamed of competing in the Grand Master’s Fiddle Contest. He dreamed of following in his granddad’s shoes to become a pilot. And he was in love with a beautiful young woman. Although he was a little embarrassed to talk of it, he held dreams of one day marrying her.

Jed loved to make people smile. He was authentic, adventurous, quick to forgive, and always acknowledged when he had done wrong. Jed was loved and is loved by many.

On August 3, 2005, Jed was 17 years old and was about to begin his final year of high school. After noticing that a friend of his had been drinking, Jed attempted to talk him out of driving. When the driver resisted, Jed decided to get into the front passenger seat of the car as an attempt to watch out for, or take care of him.

The driver was going nearly 100 mph when he lost control of his truck. Jed was thrown from the vehicle and killed. The driver survived. It was later found that the teen driver not only had alcohol, but also prescription drugs and marijuana in his system.

I found myself unwillingly recruited into the least sought after club on earth – a victim of a crime where the dues are horrendous and payments are extracted in the form of suffering and heartache. I lost a child, his siblings lost a brother, his senior class lost a classmate, and his friends lost a true friend.

If I would have asked Jed if he would ride with a drinking driver, he would have told me “no.” Yet, Jed thought that he could protect someone in danger – and if I would’ve asked Jed if he would protect someone who was in danger, I know he would’ve said “yes.”

Recently, I learned about a study released from the Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Biobehavioral Health. The study explains that while most students don’t necessarily plan or intend to ride with a drinking driver, they’re still at great risk to do so because they are willing to, should the occasion arise.

The study shows that students are more willing to get into a car with a drinking driver when they perceive a positive result from doing so. The study specifically points out “helping, supporting or protecting a friend” as a reason a student may ride with a drinking driver.

A recent public opinion survey from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and State Farm2 reinforces the study released by Pennsylvania State University. According to the MADD/State Farm survey, about one in three youth (ages 15-20) have been a passenger with a drinking driver at least once in the past year.

What I found even more shocking: one in four students said that they are willing to ride with a driver who has been drinking.

As a parent who lost his son to a drinking driver, I’m horrified. We should all be horrified. We need to ask ourselves, what are the chances that our children would ride with a drinking driver?

Before Jed’s crash, I never thought about getting involved with MADD. But then my son died, and the issue of underage drinking and riding with a drinking driver was suddenly real and personal to me and my family.

Nearly 4,700 people die each year as a result of underage drinking consequences. Every one of these deaths are 100 percent preventable.

The Pennsylvania State University study recommends focusing on changing beliefs that influence how willing students are to ride with a drinking or drugged driver. Instead of asking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, Dr. Robert Turrisi, a co-author of the study and co-author of MADD’s “Power of Parents” handbooks for teens and middle schoolers, says these conversations need to start with how, what, and why questions.

Dr. Turrisi encourages parents to ask questions like: How can you safely help your friend when you notice they’ve been drinking and driving? What are some reasons you think it would be okay to ride with a drinking driver? Why would your friends not get into the car with them; do they not care about the driver’s safety? And he strongly encourages empowering youth to positively influence each other by asking their friends similar questions.

I spoke with Jed about not drinking underage, and I spoke with him about never driving after drinking when he was of legal age. But I never imagined he would get into a car being driven by a drinking driver.

I wish I would’ve talked to Jed about not riding with a drinking driver. I wish I could have told him that if he was ever in this situation, that he could call me.

If only I could have told him that getting into a car with a drinking driver is never an option, that there is always a safer solution, and that nothing is worth the risk. If I had, maybe I would find myself at his wedding, or a grandfather to his children, or perhaps listening as he played his fiddle.

I can’t go back and have this discussion with Jed, but luckily many parents still have this opportunity. Will you take it?

Brad Bulla is a National Board Member for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Based in Tennessee, Brad speaks at Victim Impact Panels, schools, prisons, conferences, and anywhere else where he believes his story may make an impact.

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