Cracking down on teen drunk driving

Published 7:52 pm Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When a teenager gets behind the wheel of an automobile, the risk to his or her life — as well as the lives of those other drivers who happen to be on the road at the time — automatically rises. Inexperience and untrained reflexes combine to make teen drivers the most dangerous drivers on the road.

Statistics bear this out. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, per mile driven, drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely to die than older drivers. In 2009, eight teens in that age group died every day in the United States from motor vehicle crashes.

Teens, the CDC says, are more likely than others to underestimate dangerous situations on the road. They are more likely to speed and have shorter following distances. They have the lowest rate of seatbelt use and the highest rate of texting-while-driving and other distracted driving behaviors. And the death rates of 16- and 17-year-old teen drivers increase with each additional passenger in the car.

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Clearly, there’s a lot of baggage stacked up against teenage drivers before they even put the key in the ignition. But if they’ve been drinking before they sit in the driver’s seat, the odds of their surviving the trip are even worse.

In 2008, according to the CDC, 25 percent of drivers ages 15 to 20 who died in motor vehicle crashes had a blood-alcohol content that qualified them as legally impaired and unfit for driving. One in 10 teens reported in a 2007 survey that they had driven after drinking within the previous month, while nearly three in 10 reported that during the previous month they had ridden with a teen driver who had been drinking.

Considering the grave nature of those statistics, it is entirely reasonable for Virginia’s General Assembly to be considering “zero-tolerance” legislation in regards to drinking and driving by teenagers. The proposed new law would lower the allowable level of alcohol in a teen driver’s blood before that teen would be considered legally impaired, and it would stiffen the penalties the teen would face if found to be driving while under the influence.

Lives are at stake whenever anyone gets behind the wheel of a car or a truck. The statistics prove the dangers are even greater with inexperienced drivers. For the sake of those drivers, as well as society at large, Virginians must step in and assure that young lives aren’t wasted by foolish decisions. Stricter drunk-driving laws, especially for teens, will help provide that assurance.