Teens and Drunk Driving

A recent article – written by a doctor – in the New York Times states it bluntly: “The mix of drinking and driving is as dangerous to adolescents as you think it is, dangerous when adolescents are driving, and also dangerous when they are the passengers.” The piece goes on to note that “alcohol is a factor in half of the deaths of people under 21 from motor vehicle crashes.” The article also notes that alcohol-related traffic accident deaths among teens are roughly evenly distributed between drivers and passengers.

In one sense this is not news, but at a broader level it is good to be reminded of how serious an issue drunk driving still is, despite decades of public awareness campaigns. That it should still be a factor in so many teen deaths is perhaps a bit surprising a generation after the drinking age was raised to 21 throughout the country.

According to the newspaper parental example remains one of the most powerful factors in determining young people’s attitudes toward drinking and driving. “What parents do – the way they drink and whether they drink at all – is more important than what they might say about alcohol,” the Times notes. Studies have found that peer pressure also remains a serious issue: teens are much more likely to binge drink if they are hanging around with other people their own age who are doing the same thing. Oregon, like every state, has strict laws governing both drunk driving (ORS 813.010) and the broader category of reckless driving that often accompanies it (ORS 811.140). The possibility of serious consequences including injuries to children and wrongful deaths is one of the things that makes drinking and driving such a serious matter.

The seriousness with which the state views this offense is highlighted by several particular provisions of Oregon drunk driving law. Notably, while DUII is generally considered a Class A Misdemeanor under Oregon law (ORS 813.101(4)), the statute also provides for a significantly larger fine if any passenger in the vehicle is 18 or younger and the driver is three years or more older than said passenger. In addition, Oregon’s dram shop and social host laws extend strict liability to anyone found to have served or sold alcohol to underage drivers. That includes liability for the damage a drunk driver causes.

Data published by the Centers for Disease Control show that this issue varies widely in intensity from one part of the country to another. In some states self-reported teen drinking and driving approaches 15% of all 16-19 year-olds surveyed by the center, and it is probably fair to assume that self-reporting of dangerous and illegal behavior trails its actual incidence. The figures are highest in the Deep South and upper Midwest (Oregon and Washington are among the handful of states for which the CDC lacks data). The good news is that the data also indicates that “the percentage of teens in high school, aged 16 or older, who drink and drive has decreased by more than half” since 1991 (i.e. around the time that 21 became the uniform drinking age nationwide). The agency’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveys show a 54% drop in teen drunk driving over that period (see link below).

Still, as a Portland attorney focused on aiding the victims of drunk drivers, I think we can all agree that this is not good enough. The New York Times article highlights the importance of education, along with parental example and peer issues. It is important to remind people over and over again of how little alcohol it can take for one to become legally impaired, and of the serious legal consequences that can come from this, beginning with the damage a drunk driver can do to his or her own friends and loved ones.

 

New York Times: When Teenagers Drink, Avoiding the Risks from Driving

Centers for Disease Control: Teen Drinking and Driving

Oregon DOT: Impaired Driving