Jessica Bliss, The Tennessean
A driver's license mixed with a few drinks can be dangerous.
The potent combination can be even more dangerous for inexperienced drivers. So even when a parent trusts her own teenager to be conscientious, controlling the irresponsible decisions of others is impossible.
That's why Angie Langford is up nights when her 17-year-old daughter is out.
"It is horrible," the Williamson County resident said. "It just makes your stomach in knots. … It's every weekend. It's everywhere."
When it comes to teens and drunk driving, it's good news-bad news.
• The good news is that teen drunk driving nationwide is down by 54% since 1991, according to an October report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• The bad news is that car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, and about a third of those are alcohol related, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
As prom and graduation season approaches, parents' drunk-driving fears escalate and schools' activism against such activity increases. Though teens continue to be the ultimate decision-makers in their own safety, it doesn't keep parents from waiting up at night.
Sharing the message
Not every child makes it home safe. And only some live to tell about it.
Phaedra Marriott-Olsen is one who survived.
The night a drunk driver hit her head-on was like many other spring evenings. She stopped at a pizza place with friends and then headed to hear some music. When she got in the car to head home, she said she had not a drop of alcohol or drugs in her system.
But the driver that hit her was did.
At 22 years old, she was paralyzed.
Now nearly 40, the Ashland City, Tenn., mom has spent almost half her life in a wheelchair because of someone else's decision to drink and drive.
"Tragedy does happen when we least expect it," Marriott-Olsen said.
That message is one she now shares with students across Tennessee as part of Mothers Against Drunk Driving's Power of Parents and Power of Youth programs. In April, she will speak to more than 5,000 students, talking not only about the dangers of drinking and driving but also texting and driving and the importance of wearing a seat belt.
"It's a high time of teen drinking around these celebrations," Marriott-Olsen said of prom and graduation.
When she speaks, she gets a lot of tears. When she asks students if they know someone who has driven drunk, almost every hand in the room comes up. And almost all of them know someone who has been affected by that decision.
The job now is to turn tragedy into triumph, Marriott-Olsen said.
"I want them to feel encouraged and motivated," she said.
"There are so many things we can't change in our lives — the color of our skin, who our parents are," but teenagers can change how they make decisions, she said.
A decision that changes lives
It seems, to some extent, they are.
The CDC cites several reasons for the reduction in teen drunk-driving incidents, including the decline of alcohol consumption and fewer teens driving.
Still, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among U.S. teens ages 16 to 19, the CDC reports. And, in 2010, 1 in 5 of those teen drivers involved in fatal crashes had a alcohol in their blood.
Compared with a sober driver of the same age, a driver age 16 to 20 years old with a blood alcohol level of at least 0.08 percent is estimated to be 32 times as likely to die in a single-vehicle crash and 13 times as likely to be in a crash in which the young driver lives but someone else dies.
"It's something they live with and see on a regular basis," Marriott-Olsen said. But she wants to remind teens that this is not a case of "everyone is doing it." In fact, she said 70% of teens are not drinking.
That message must be spread.
"I am a firm believer if we can educate them at a young age, we are going to be able to save our future," Marriott-Olsen said.
Start conversation with kids early
She started talking to her daughters — another is in college — about the dangers of drinking and driving before they were even teens. Every time she hears a story about the subject, she shares it.
It's important for safety, she said.
If nothing else, when her younger daughter goes to prom in a few weeks, Langford will find a little comfort in the transportation arrangements. Her daughter's private school decided to charter three Greyhound buses to take all the students to the festivities about 30 miles away. No student will be allowed to drive to or from the event.
"It cuts off a couple of hours when bad things can happen," said prom coordinator Tiffany Alday, whose 16-year-old son is a junior.
But it doesn't mean parents can relax.
"Parents have to be smart, they have to be proactive and they have to have conversations constantly," Langford said. "It never can go away. It has to be in the forefront all the time. It has to be a priority."
Teen drinking and driving
Percentage of teens in high school, ages 16 years or older, who reported drinking and driving.
Tips for talking to teens
Mothers Against Drunk Driving offers a 48-page handbook on its website, to help parents talk to their teens about alcohol. Here are some of its talking points:
• Emphasize the fact that drinking is illegal for teens and for very good reasons.
• Let your teen know that not everyone their age is drinking. Teens often overestimate how many of their peers are drinking or have tried alcohol.
• Talk about how drinking affects the brain. Teens need to know how drinking will affect them and that a person who is drinking is not a good judge of how impaired they are.
• Explain your own position concerning your teen's drinking. Discuss your family's rules about alcohol and agree on the consequences for breaking the rules.
• Talk about what sometimes motivates teens to drink and discuss alternatives for achieving those goals.
• Discuss reasons for NOT drinking and the bad consequences that can result from drinking.
• Help your teen brainstorm ways to resist inappropriate peer pressure.