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May 02, 2024 Spring 2024

Not a Drop: Juveniles and Impaired Driving

Judge Michael J. Cassidy (Ret.), Virginia Judicial Outreach Liaison

It is every parent’s nightmare - the early morning call about a child involved in a serious motor vehicle collision. Emblematic of the concern, a recent incident in Merrifield, Virginia, involved many of the common devastating ingredients of a tragic event involving teen drivers - suspected drinking, no seatbelts, and numerous underage passengers in the vehicle in the early morning. The vehicle’s seven teenage occupants ranged in age from 13 to 17 years old. All were seriously injured, one died.

Nationally, teenagers represent a disproportionate percentage of impaired driving fatalities. Teenage impaired drivers annually bear responsibility for 17% of fatal alcohol-involved crashes, even though drivers under the age of twenty-one represent only 10% of the licensed drivers. In the United States, 2,800 teens (ages 13–19) died and about 227,000 suffered injuries in motor vehicle crashes in 2020. That means that every day, about eight teens die in motor vehicle crashes with hundreds more injured. Motor vehicle crash deaths among teens 13–19 years of age also resulted in about $40.7 billion in annual medical expenses.

Teens who drink and get in a car also tend to make other poor decisions that impact safety. For instance, after consuming alcohol young persons are less likely to wear a seat belt and are more likely to get into a vehicle with an intoxicated driver. In alcohol-related traffic crashes, three times more deaths among young people who were not wearing their seat belts occur than among those who were wearing them. Early onset of alcohol use before the age of 15 portends future greater risk of injury from alcohol use. Youths who started drinking before age 15, compared to those who wait until the legal age of 21 to begin consuming alcohol, are seven times more likely to be in a motor vehicle crash after drinking, and are significantly more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at later stages of young adulthood.

Ad campaigns and other enforcement efforts designed to curb teen drinking and driving demonstrate positive results, as the percentage of teens who drink and drive has dropped by 54% since 1991. Despite the progress, the concerning news, though, lies in the fact that high school-aged teens drink and drive an estimated two million times a month. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), annually there are 1.3 teenage fatalities per 100,000 population. That number grows to 5.6 per 100,000 between the ages of 21 and 34 – the highest offending age group. Even though teenage alcohol consumption remains illegal, as does driving after the consumption of any alcohol, 2020 data available from the CDC reveals that:

  • 29% of drivers ages 15–20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes had been drinking;
  • 17% of drivers ages 15–20 who were involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes had a BAC of 0.08% or higher—a level that is illegal for adults in all U.S. states (Utah’s BAC limit is 0.05%);
  • 62% of drivers ages 15–20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes after drinking and driving were not wearing a seat belt;
  • 24% of male drivers ages 15–20 years and 17% of female drivers ages 15–20 years who were involved in fatal crashes had been drinking prior to the crash.

While many states set underage intoxication at a level of 0.02 mg/L of alcohol or higher, other states take a “not a drop” standard, prohibiting drivers under the age of twenty-one from driving under the influence of any amount of alcohol. At all levels of blood alcohol content (BAC), the risk of being in a car crash after consuming alcohol significantly increases for teens compared with all adult drivers. Having physical possession of alcohol or a measurable amount of alcohol based on a breath, blood, or urine test in Utah can result in a number or educational mandates plus suspension of the 18- to 21-year-old license to drive. In Minnesota underage impaired driving results in a jail sentence of up to 90 days and license suspension. License suspensions for underage impaired driving typically range from three months to two years.

On-line training available from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) highlights the interventions available for courts when dealing with underage impaired drivers. Developed by the NCSC and in consultation with a national panel of experts, a course entitled Effective Judicial Interventions for Underage Drinking Offenders, focuses on educating judges about underage drinking to encourage and support informed decisions in the courtroom. The course provides judges with information on the importance of accurate assessments, appropriate sentencing decisions, and tailored treatment plans for underage drinkers, including one-time offenders or more serious, habitual underage alcohol abusers. The program also encourages judges to consider an underage alcohol offense as a potential turning point for the juveniles that come into their courtroom and highlights the necessity of a collaborative approach in the adjudication of each individual offender.

The relative inexperience of teens with the complex divided attention task of driving, when influenced by alcohol consumption, places them at a greater risk for driver fatality compared to adults. Parents, schools and communities must educate teens about the dangers of drunk driving and encourage responsible decisions when it comes to any alcohol consumption and driving to avoid the tragic and devastating consequences of underage impaired driving.

    Judge Michael J. Cassidy (Ret.)

    Virginia Judicial Outreach Liaison

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