KIDS AND COMMUNITY: Effects of alcohol start before reaching the illegal limit

KIDS AND COMMUNITY by Judy Shepps Battle:Transferring a minor while inebriated should carry stricter penalties.

By: Judy Shepps Battle
   I don’t like drunk drivers. And after reading the latest statistics regarding child injuries and fatalities in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, I dislike them even more. Not only do they choose to drive with impaired cognitive and spatial judgment, they too often fail to use appropriate seatbelt restraining systems for their child passengers.
   The statistics regarding these twin lapses are not pretty. One of every four children killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2002 — a total of 1,548 children aged 15 years and younger — were killed in alcohol-related crashes. Most tragically, more than two-thirds of these fatally injured children were riding with the drinking driver, and the majority were unrestrained.
   State laws are uneven regarding the punishment of drunk drivers who transport children. Some states impose jail time; others, a fine and community service. A few states consider this action as child neglect or even child abuse. But too many — including New Jersey — do not have any laws regarding such circumstances.
   It’s time that situation changes.

Size Matters

   No driver sets out to intentionally be involved in a motor vehicle accident. The consequences are potentially painful and expensive, but more importantly, no sober adult would choose to risk death or injury of their children by letting them ride unbelted.
   The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) estimates that it only takes four drinks in one hour on an empty stomach for a 170-pound man to reach the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08, the point at which it is illegal to drive in most states. A 137-pound woman could reach that level after about three drinks an hour on an empty stomach.
   The size of a drink depends upon the nature of the substance. There is the same amount of alcohol in a 12-ounce beer as in a 12-ounce wine cooler. Both have the same alcohol content as five ounces of wine or one and a half ounces of hard liquor.
   The NHSTA states that the risk of a driver being killed in a crash at .08 BAC — even if he or she is wearing a seat belt — is at least 11 times greater than that of a driver without alcohol in his or her system. At a BAC of .10, the risk is at least 29 times higher.
   While it is true that a person is legally drunk only when his or her BAC reaches the level established by the state, adverse effects of alcohol begin long before that point.
Alcohol Impairs Judgment

   Alcohol decreases inhibitions and makes risky behavior attractive in an otherwise responsible and conservative driver.
   The initial feeling of relaxation and happiness after consuming one drink can quickly progress to slight loss of motor skills and irritability after the second drink. By three drinks, the average-weight drinker (described above) is likely to experience a lack of coordination, a slow-down of thought processes, slurred speech and even grandiosity.
   It is this grandiosity that produces the insistence that "I won’t have a problem driving" or "seatbelts are not needed," as well as the jaw-in-your-face belligerence directed toward anyone who suggests this is not the case.
   NHSTA makes it clear that a .08 BAC level affects all the basic, crucial driving skills, including braking, steering, lane changing, judgment and response time. It states: "It is the level at which fatal crash risk significantly increases and virtually everyone is seriously impaired."
Just Say No

   The group most unprepared to deal with such an unsafe situation are kids younger than 15 years old. Very few youngsters are taught how to just say no to getting in a car with an otherwise trusted adult who has been drinking. It would be prudent of elementary schools to incorporate such refusal skills into their health curriculum, but you can teach this survival rule to your kids. Put together a list of adults who are willing to pick up your child, and make sure your son or daughter always carries this list, along with telephone change (if he or she does not have a cell phone).
   Younger kids should practice this refusal skill at home many times by role-playing the what ifs of such a situation. These include scenarios such as What if the adult gets angry? or What if you are not sure what do?
   Additionally, we need strong legal sanctions that both punish offenders and provide opportunities for education and treatment, when necessary.
Creating Uniform Legal Consequences

   At present there is little consistency in sanctions for transporting a minor while inebriated, and even less in defining the age of the youngster. As of December 2003, 24 states have no specific laws to create special sanctions in cases of a driver who drives under the influence while transporting a child. These states are Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Washington DC, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.
   Sanctions in the remaining states range from mandatory jail time to fines, community service and forfeiture of the vehicle. Jail time can vary from 48 hours (California, Illinois, Maine, West Virginia) to 4 years, if there is an injury (Colorado), and 8 to 24 years if there is a death (Colorado). Fines range from $200 (Georgia) to $1,000,000 (Colorado).
   The legal definition of minor child being transported ranges from 12 years or younger (Louisiana) to under 18 (North Dakota, Ohio).
   Our laws should have sufficient consequences to make an inebriated driver think twice before getting behind the wheel of his or her car when transporting a child.
Efforts in New Jersey

   Bill No. 2076 was introduced into the New Jersey State Assembly on Feb. 9. Sponsored by Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew, District 1 (Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland), it criminalizes driving under the influence and having an accident with a person 17 years of age or younger in the vehicle. It reads: "Any person who operates a motor vehicle and is involved in an accident while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or a narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug in violation of R.S.39: 4-50 with a passenger 17 years of age or younger is guilty of a crime of the fourth degree. A person convicted under the provisions of this section also shall be required to attend a program concerning responsible operation of a motor vehicle while transporting a minor which is conducted by the Intoxicated Driver Resource Centers pursuant to subsection (f) of R.S.39: 4-50. (cf: P.L.2001, c.291, s.1)."
   A crime of the fourth degree is the lowest level of crime handled at the Superior Court level. If convicted, the penalties for this crime can include a fine of up to $10,000, up to 18 months in jail, or both.
   I urge all residents of New Jersey to contact their state legislators to urge early passage of this Bill.
Judy Shepps Battle is a New Jersey resident, addictions specialist, consultant and freelance writer. She can be reached by e-mail at Judy@writeaction.com. Additional information on this and other topics can be found at her Web site at www.writeaction.com/.