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Fewer teens drinking and driving

The numbers of teenagers who drink and drive has dropped by more than half since 1991, according to a study released last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The report, Vital Signs, found a 54 percent decrease in the numbers of teens aged 16-19 who drove after consuming alcohol."We are moving in the right direction. Rates of teen drinking and driving have been cut in half in 20 years," said CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden. "But we must keep up the momentum. One in 10 high school teens, aged 16 and older, drinks and drives each month, endangering themselves and others."The study also found that teenagers were responsible for about 2.4 million episodes of drinking and driving a month in 2011; some engaged in the dangerous behavior more than once a month. High school boys ages 18 and older were most likely to drink and drive (18 percent), while 16-year-old high school girls were least likely (6 percent).According to PADUI, 1,255 people aged 16-20 were involved in drinking-related crashes in 2010, down from 2,071 in 1990.In 2010, teens were involved in 12,436, or 39.5 percent, of all single-vehicle crashes in Pennsylvania. In fatal crashes, 31 percent of the driver deaths in the 16-20 age group were drinking drivers, up from 27 percent in 2009, according to the state Department of Transportation.So, parents and educators still have work to do: Nearly one million teens still drink and drive every year, the study found.Driving down the numbersImpairment factors heavily into crashes, and motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teens aged 16-19 years in the nation, according to the CDC.In 2010, a total of 2,211 passenger vehicle occupants aged 16-19 years died in crashes on public roadways; 1,280 (58 percent) were the drivers."Teens learn from adults," said Pamela S. Hyde, who heads the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "That is why it is critically important that parents, teachers, coaches and all caring adults in a young person's life talk with them early and often about the dangers of underage alcohol use as well as drinking and driving."Jim Thorpe Police Chief Joseph Schatz agrees."Education and enforcement," he said, are the keys to putting the brakes on drinking and driving. "Having education and enforcement in place are among the key reasons why the DUI rate for young people has dropped."On Wednesday, Schatz spoke with members of Jim Thorpe High School's Students Against Drunk Driving chapter about police efforts to stop drunk drivers, and about the consequences of drinking and driving.Senior Michael Kalage was stunned at what he learned."I had no idea the DUI stays on your driving record for your whole life," he said. "I thought it would go away after a few years. That's something you don't think about as teenagers, because we think our decisions now are only going to affect us for a little bit. But they can stay with you forever."Senior Avery Day was surprised to learn that fewer teens are drinking and driving these days."I would have thought it would be higher," she said.Day also learned how the checkpoint works."Because I've never been through one, I now know how they stop (drivers) and what they do when they ask questions," she said.Jim Thorpe SADD advisor Jane Adams said the chapter, 120 strong, participates in many activities throughout the year. They include a pre-prom fashion show in March."The students model the dresses/tuxes, and in between we show videos of students who have been in drunk driving accidents during prom time as well as some cars that have crashed because of drunk driving," she said. "On prom day, we show a movie to all students attending the prom about a man who is in jail because he killed someone while driving drunk."The chapter also does an annual assembly."Two years ago, we had a woman named Cara Fuller, whose twin was killed in a car crash," Adams said. "It was very moving and impacted all the kids."Last year, a student set up a mock car crash in the school parking lot, and invited the Life Flyte helicopter to make an appearance. Students portrayed the car's occupants, one of whom had been "killed" in the crash. The "driver" of the car was arrested for driving under the influence.The group also enjoys visits from Carbon-Monroe-Pike Drug & Alcohol Commission representative Jacqui Verhauz.Adams took six students to last year's SADD national conference in Los Angeles. The speakers included a "young professional dancer who got in the car with a drunk driver, and is now paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 22," she said."We also do seat belt checks at random twice a year. We read the names of students and staff that were caught not wearing seat belts," Adams said.Several other local educators weighed in on their efforts to drive down the numbers of teens who get behind the wheel after imbibing.Rebecca Schaeffer, the SADD advisor at Carbon Career & Technical Institute, was happy to learn of the decrease in teen drinking and driving."It's wonderful to see that all of the education and information we give to our students is paying off. Students are realizing that the mistakes they make when they are young have ramifications and consequences as they get older. Students are watching some of their friends make poor choices when it comes to under aged drinking and are choosing to be more responsible," she said."During prom time at CCTI, our SADD chapter does try to bring in speakers to talk with the students about making appropriate choices when it comes to under aged drinking. We teach our students that having fun doesn't need to involve alcohol and drugs," Schaeffer said.Awareness coursePanther Valley High School students may sign up for a drug and alcohol awareness course as an elective, said Principal Joseph Gunnels."Student attitudes and peer pressure to drink alcohol are addressed (in the course), as well impaired and distracted driving," he said.The high school also partners with the Summit Hill police department to offer a monthly program called "16 Minutes." The program, sponsored through Pennsylvania State Police and the state Department of Transportation, is presented by Officer Brent Hannon and teaches beginning drivers safe driving and responsible behavior.Summit Hill police have also given awareness seminars before Panther Valley proms, Gunnels said."Recently we have taken advantage of Wal-Mart Corporation's Safe Driving assemblies. Panther Valley High School hosted Wal-Mart on Oct. 3, and they brought large commercial vehicles on campus and instructed students on how to safely share the road with large trucks. Students interacted with commercial drivers and experienced blind-spots from behind the wheel of a tractor and trailer. Impaired operation of a motor vehicle was also addressed," he said.Weatherly Area School District Superintendent Thomas McLaughlin said his district has a multifaceted approach."We have a 'Camfel' production every year. This is a three-screen multimedia presentation focusing on student making positive choices," he said. "We have 'Survival 101'. This is a driver safety program provided by our Weatherly Police Department and our local EMT's to explain the dangers of drinking and driving."The district also has a Road Radio assembly, which focuses on the consequences of alcohol use while driving. The presenter is Jim Mothersbaugh, a survivor of an alcohol-related crash.Weatherly also has a Wellness fair twice a year that includes material from the Carbon-Monroe-Pike Drug & Alcohol Commission, and it has a Student Assistance Program whose staff are trained to observe "at-risk" behaviors and assist students and families in gaining access to community services.The district has presentations by the state Attorney General's office, and a specialist from the CMP D&A Commission to oversee student group sessions on drug and alcohol awareness.Weatherly, too, participates in the "16 Minutes" program.In the Lehighton Area School District, high school Principal Tim Tkach said his school also has a SADD chapter and several prom-related activities."We have a mock accident the day of the prom, prom pledge activities the whole week of the prom, and an activity where we bang the gong over the PA system every so many minutes to signify another person dying from a drunk driver," he said. "In addition, we have our advisor go on Tribal Vision and relate her personal story about her brother and his death relating to drinking and driving it is very powerful."Tkach also said the school, with the Drug and Alcohol Task Force and district commitment is having an "Operation Saturation" in conjunction with Wyoming Valley Alcohol & Drug Services on Oct. 23."This will be a program district wide K-12, and an evening program beginning at 7 p.m. in the high school auditorium," he said.

Photo illustration by David Rowe