Risk Within Reason is pleased to feature this guest post by attorney and journalist Pari Chang.
Did you know that underage drinkers are responsible for between 10% and 20% of all alcohol consumed during the Christmas and New Year holiday period? Also, 21- to 24-year-olds repeatedly make up the highest percentage of impaired drivers.
Statistics like these have prompted initiatives by parents and school officials to administer Breathalyzer tests to young people. “Remember the debate over whether school nurses should distribute condoms? Now it’s: We know they drink, but what message does it send if schools give Breathalyzer tests?” says Mark Defino, a parent in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. School officials there have been testing kids for alcohol before school dances and proms since 2007.
Attorney Daniel R. Rosen, whose firm handles auto accident cases, adds, “Besides the moral implications, it’s a matter of balancing the privacy rights of students against controlling drinking and driving.”
The debate over Breathalyzer-testing our youth rages across the country. In the Pequannock school district in New Jersey, it began in 2006 and hasn’t stopped. That year, at a Pequannock school dance, 40% to 50% of the kids arrived under the influence of alcohol. A survey of 400 juniors and seniors taken during that school year revealed that 219 students had used alcohol in the previous 30 days.
Pequannock school officials decided to rely on Breathalyzers to keep the students honest. The district implemented a program that warned students; they could be tested for alcohol up to 80 hours after they have consumed it. If a student had a drink on Friday, it would be evident on a test on Monday. Since that program began, the number of juniors and seniors consuming alcohol has decreased by 37%.
I commend the district for having the courage to take action instead of waiting for a tragedy,” says Lacy Link, an educator in Northern New Jersey whose district is considering a similar program. She notes that many parents support the program. “Some have purchased breath alcohol ignition interlock devices of their own,” she says. Breath alcohol ignition interlock devices (BAIID) are designed to prevent an individual from operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. The result is peace of mind for parents by reducing the likelihood that their teenagers will be arrested for drunk driving or be involved in a near-fatal or fatal drunk-driving accident.
But Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) presses a less controversial approach. MADD advocates teaching kids to say no when peers urge them to engage in underage drinking. They encourage parents to inform their teenagers, and the statistics support their approach: Teen alcohol use kills about 6,000 people each year, more than all illegal drugs combined.
One in three eighth-grade students has tried alcohol. One in five teens binge drinks, but only one in 100 parents believes their child binge drinks. Seventy-four percent of kids (ages 8-17) said their parents are the leading influence on their decisions about drinking. Having regular family conversations about alcohol can reduce underage drinking and drunkenness by 30-60%. When parents and kids are better connected, kids are less likely to drink or use other drugs.
To help parents tackle this tough issue, MADD provides a parent handbook on its website and arranges community workshops. Around the holidays, it’s particularly difficult to curb teen drinking and driving, not only because kids let loose after exams, but because of capitalism, straight up.
Barron H. Lerner, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Public Health at Columbia University Medical Center and author of the book One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, notes that the alcohol industry has opposed many anti-drunk driving measures by enthusiastically promoting the phrase “responsible drinking” in public campaigns while opposing legislation aimed at deterring drinking and driving. Plus, beer companies, in particular, continue to advertise heavily and promote events on college campuses.
Teenage drinking and driving statistics are alarming, but parents are not without resources. The best resource is sharing yourself, and speaking from the heart, without judgment. No Breathalyzer test is a substitute for an open and honest conversation with a young person about taking responsibility for their actions. When young people feel they are heard and affirmed, constructive change can happen.
Pari Chang is an attorney and professional journalist with writing credits that include The New York Times, SELF, and Glamour.