Liquor and Teen Drivers: a Deadly Mix

CARL T. ROWAN

June 02, 1993|By CARL T. ROWAN

Washington. -- At a liquor store in downtown Washington, a teen-ager buys a six-pack of beer as easily as he might buy a six-pack of Pepsi. In a Virginia suburb, 20 or so high-school students pile into five cars after a party at which some had been drinking.

These two unrelated incidents represent the ingredients of a lethal combination -- alcohol, cars, teen-agers.

Motor-vehicle injury is the greatest threat to the lives of adolescents in America. During the 1980s, over 74,000 teen-agers were killed in such accidents -- more than died from all diseases combined. This means that every two or three weeks the equivalent of an average-size senior class is wiped out on our streets and highways. Alcohol is involved in as many as 40 percent of those fatalities.

The numbers used to be even worse. In the 1980s, however, increased public awareness and a crackdown on liquor sales to minors reduced case of drinking and driving. Safety officials estimate that at least 13,000 lives have been saved since the minimum drinking age in the U.S. was raised to 21 in 1984.

That figure would be even higher, but for a ''secret'' known to every teen-ager and affirmed in a new report by the National Transportation Safety Board: enforcement of teen-age drinking laws is slipshod, at best, non-existent, at worst.

Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello has said that the minimum drinking age of 21 is largely a myth because state laws are riddled with ''loopholes, laxity and lip service.''

Twenty-three states do not actually prohibit minors from trying to buy alcohol, 21 do not outlaw consumption by minors, 16 don't give a legal hoot if minors lie about their age, and 18 have no laws against using false identification.

So we have situations like that in the District of Columbia where it is illegal to sell alcoholic beverages to anyone under 21 or for minors to drink alcohol -- but it is not illegal for them to buy booze, carry it around or use a fake ID. Little wonder that in a test conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 97 out of 100 teen-age decoys were able to buy alcohol in our nation's capital. The Transportation Safety Board offers several recommendations for dealing with teen-age drinking and driving:

Make it harder for youths to get alcohol. Loopholes in state laws should be closed and legal action taken against anyone who sells alcohol to teen-agers.

Crack down on young people who drive after drinking. The board calls on states to establish a minimum blood alcohol content of 0.0 percent -- that's right, absolutely nothing -- for teen-age drivers, and to immediately suspend or revoke the license of any teen caught driving with even a trace of alcohol in his or her blood. It also recommends that states issue ''provisional'' licenses to new young drivers that require them to keep their records clean -- no serious violations, no accidents, no alcohol -- for a specified period before they get a regular license. And the board calls for a nighttime curfew on driving by ''young novice drivers.''

Stricter laws alone will not end the slaughter on our highways. Young people and their parents must get involved. Groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and SADD (Students Against Driving Drunk) help. So do programs that encourage youths to designate non-drinking drivers at parties and call home if they need a safe ride.

Still, the continued carnage makes clear that more is needed. A lot of young people, and maybe some adults, will complain that the measures recommended by the Transportation Safety Board are too tough.

But then, I imagine that's what many of those 20 Virginia teen-agers would have said, too -- before one of the cars in which they drove away went out of control, careened off the highway and smashed into a tree, injuring three of their friends and killing a fourth, a 17-year-old honor student who would have been starting college this fall.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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