By Taylor Swankie
Editor in Chief
Ashley (name changed) sped past a cop. She sees blue lights in her mirror and pulls over. When she rolls down her window, the officer says he smells alcohol and forces Ashley and all six passengers to get out of the car. He breathalyzes them all and Ashley’s friends got underage drinking tickets. It is not until the officer slaps handcuffs on Ashley’s wrist that she realizes this is serious. She is going to jail.
Each month, 14 percent of teens drive impaired and do not think they will get caught – until they do – according to the study “Unsafe driving by American high school seniors” published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
“It doesn’t hit you until later,” Ashley said. “Being in (jail) was the worst feeling ever.”
Ashley’s sentence was not as severe as it could have been. Her license was revoked for 30 days, she had to pay $50 to restore it and her parents grounded her. Typically, a teen convicted of driving while impaired loses their license for up to a year, according to the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.
“I lucked out. I could have killed someone,” Ashley said. “I could have gone to jail for the rest of my life.”
In North Carolina, any driver under the age of 21 who has any measurable blood alcohol concentration can lead to a conviction known as a provisional driving while impaired charge. A driver under 21 who blows over .08 could get two charges – a provisional DWI and a regular DWI. Other states have a minimum of .02 percent BAC to convict an underage driver, but in North Carolina, an arresting officer’s description of the smell of alcohol, slurred speech and other characteristics of intoxication can support a conviction, according to the NC DMV.
“I didn’t think I was drunk,” Ashley said. “It’s not worth the risk at all, I wasn’t ready for the consequences.”
Sadly, too many teens do not think about the consequences, according to Eric Swain, Assistant Special Agent in charge with the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement Agency.
“A lot of teens think they’re invincible. I can tell you if you do (drink and drive) enough you’re going to get caught and something bad will happen,” Swain said. “It’s a tremendous responsibility to operate a motor vehicle.”
Drunk driving fatalities accounted for 32 percent of all traffic deaths in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Among 15- to 20- year old drivers involved in fatal crashes, 31 percent of the drivers killed had been drinking and 25 percent who were killed had a BAC of .08 or higher. The NHTSA reports that one of out 10 alcohol-related fatal wrecks in North Carolina involve underage drinkers.
“A lot of teens think it’s not going to happen to me, but you don’t know how many times I’ve had to go to a young person’s house to talk to a parent about how their daughter was killed over the weekend due to an alcohol related offense,” Swain said.
Death is one of the most serious consequences that comes with drinking and driving, according to Swain, but he also said that there are numerous severe consequences that teens should think about before making the decision to drive impaired.
“I’ll use a base line monetary estimate. It’s going to cost a (teen charged with a DWI) around $10,000 if you factor in insurance, fines, possible alcohol education class, which is not free you have to pay by the hour and that can run anywhere from $20 to $40 an hour, court fines, loss of license, community service,” Swain said. “Who’s going to pay for that?”
Swain said that teens convicted of a DWI offense will continue to pay for that crime in years to come.
“There’s so much (teens) have to take into consideration. If you get a charge on record, when you apply to college, you have a black mark on their application. You have to disclose the fact that you were charged or arrested on college applications, job applications,” Swain said. “It’s going to follow you for the rest of your life. You may lose an opportunity to do something you want to do because of a decision you made as a young person.”
Swain warns that alcohol is not the only form of impairment. He said that driving under the influence of controlled substances, prescription pills, marijuana and other drugs can impair driving and result in a DWI conviction.
“Don’t pigeon hole yourself to thinking only alcohol impairs your judgement and that (anything that can impair judgement) is just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol,” Swain said.
What concerns Swain and other law enforcement agents is that 30 percent of seniors reported driving after drinking heavily or using drugs, or riding in a car whose driver had been drinking heavily or using drugs at least once in the the past two weeks, according to the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Leaders of the National Drug Control Policy express concern over the statistic that one in six high school seniors admit driving while high and 18 percent of young drivers ages 17 to 21 years old reported driving under the influence of an illicit drug, according to “Drugged Driving,” a report released from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
“Teens already have the highest crash risk of any age group, making traffic crashes the leading cause of death for young people age 15-20,” US Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta said in a press release. “Combining teen marijuana use with teens’ inexperience on the road and risk-taking behavior is a recipe for disaster.”
John (name changed) admits that he drives impaired under the influence of marijuana, and occasionally alcohol, anywhere from four to six nights a month.
“The reason I decide to drive impaired is that I have no other means of transportation and do not feel like paying for a cab,” John said. “I am usually less confident when I am sober and tend to have less confidence in myself and my driving. One of the tendencies while being impaired is having a false sense of security.”
John does not worry about getting caught by the police or harming others in an accident because he does not consider marijuana to be as harmful as alcohol.
“I seldom worry about getting caught by the police because usually when I am impaired, I am not drunk. Police officers have many ways to tell if a person is drunk or not, but if somebody is under the influence of some other substance it is more difficult for them to be able to tell,” John said. “A police officer has the authority to make someone take a sobriety test on the side of the road, but if a person is under the influence of something like marijuana it is fairly easy to keep your composure and pass the test.”
Swain said it comes back to the invincible mentality some teens possess. Swain said that driving under the influence of illicit drugs, such as marijuana, is just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. John said that he has this mentality because he does not think he will get caught.
“I believe a lot of teens have this mentality because most people have not had that experience that proves them wrong,” John said.
Josh (name changed) was proved wrong when he smoked about a gram of weed before school with two other teenagers. A cop had to talk to each driver as they pulled through a construction zone. The cop said a cloud of smoke rose out of Josh’s window when he rolled it down to speak with the cop. His old school (he currently attends First Flight High School) threatened to expel him, but he got off and since then, has not completely learned his lesson. He continues to drive under the influence of marijuana and does not suspect he will get caught again.
“I haven’t driven drunk, but I’ve driven high countless times. I know of people that drive impaired; I was driven last Saturday by a girl that was drunk (who) could drive good so it was chill,” Josh said. “We got to our destination without crossing a single white line.”
But many teens are not as lucky as Josh. Experts say the facts show that driving under the influence of marijuana is not any less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol. According to Monitoring the Future and Census Bureau data, an estimated 38,000 of high school seniors reported in 2001 that they crashed while driving under the influence of marijuana and 46,000 reported that they crashed while driving under the influence of alcohol.
“I used to (drive under the influence of alcohol) all the time. I can’t believe I was so stupid,” Ashley said. “I’ve learned my lesson and haven’t drove drunk since it happened.”
The journal Pediatrics shows that parents have a role in the safety of teen drivers. Those who are actively involved in setting rules and boundaries, and following up on those rules cut the risk of their child drinking and driving by 70 percent.
“Don’t put yourself in that position. If you know drugs or alcohol will be at a party, the best thing to do is just not go. Then you don’t have the pressure to say no,” Swain said. “Don’t drink and drive. Don’t use drugs and drive. It just doesn’t make any sense.”