To prevent impaired driving, treat young people with respect

In the late hours of Labor Day, 2006, on Interstate 64 near Sand Springs, Okla., Thomas Kirby Jr. lost control of his vehicle, crossed the median and slammed head-on into another vehicle carrying four. The impact triggered a fiery and fatal explosion, killing Mr. Kirby, 47, and his passenger Lisa Adams, 38. Sarah Foster, 19; Steven Dillion, 18; Isaac King, 20; and Aaron Davis, 20, were also killed in the crash. Mr. Kirby was later found to have been under the influence of a practically lethal amount of alcohol and methamphetamine at the time of the crash.

This is only one of thousands of tragic stories that remind us of the continual, senseless devastation of impaired driving. But it is one that affected me in a most personal way. Sarah, my cousin, role model and best friend, was killed before her 20th birthday.

In 2009 alone, 10,839 people in the United States were killed because of impaired driving. It's often hard to get around the statistics. The tragedy of it is that each of these deaths was entirely preventable.

Everyone seems to have opinions on enforcement efforts that will better prevent impaired driving in the United States: sobriety checkpoints, ignition interlocks, active enforcement of BAC laws and zero tolerance laws, reporting bad drivers, substance abuse assessment and treatment, etc. There is validity in all of these ideas. There is no simple solution for such a complex problem. But one element of DUI prevention that needs attention is driver's education of youths and young adults.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that "most behaviors preceding major causes of preventable death have begun by young adulthood." This federally funded study analyzed a national representative sample of more than 14,000 young adults who were tracked since early adolescence and interviewed multiple times over seven years. "Dramatic" increases were found in alcohol consumption and substance abuse upon reaching adulthood.

Destructive habits like these are often formed and solidified at a young age. As traffic accidents are among the 10 leading causes of preventable death — and nearly 32 percent of these accidents involve impaired driving — the statistics about alcohol consumption and substance abuse habits formed by children directly correlate with the percentage of impaired-driving deaths.

As someone who was enrolled in driver's ed in recent years, I remember how upsetting I found the current strategy to dissuade impaired driving. Tragic stories, impairment goggles and warnings about criminal charges were used to promote fear as deterrence. This, despite the fact that the National Institute on Drug Abuse has stated that "research and experience have demonstrated that [scare tactics] are either counterproductive or ineffective." Why is this? Because such tactics demonstrate an underlying lack of respect toward teens and young adults.

A staple of this generation is individualism. Each young adult has unique opinions and the desire to exercise the right to voice them. Teenagers' intellect, passion and vision need to be considered equally with adults. Instead, they are often disregarded because of near-universal negative perceptions about the American teenager.

Drivers education is not immune. The use of scare tactics insinuates that teenagers need to be scared into line. The lack of real involvement of students suggests that their views are insignificant. The primary use of videos for teaching purposes to convey the importance of impaired driving awareness — rather than real interaction between teachers and students — is counterproductive.

Driver's education requires a different approach in an atmosphere of respect. Scare tactics need to be eliminated. Curriculum must be redesigned to facilitate a considerable amount of student involvement. The tragic situations resulting from impaired driving should be shared by an individual or group of individuals who are present in the classroom. This would give the students a chance to receive the best opportunity to understand the devastation of impaired driving.

This new approach is feasible. Development of new curriculum would be expensive, but the potential benefits far outweigh the costs. Finding enough volunteers to share their experiences is also very feasible.

Five years ago, the senseless and tragic deaths of four teenagers, including my cousin, forever altered their families, friends and their community. Sarah's story and the stories of countless others must be told. Young people need to be exposed to the horror of impaired driving by those who carry it with them every day. And this can start with me.

Christina Lindgren of California, Maryland, is a senior at Cedarville University in Ohio. Her email is cmlindgren@cedarville.edu.