A state law passed after five Oswego teenagers died in an alcohol-related car crash last year has led to driver's-license suspensions for more than 3,000 underage drinkers this year, but experts give it mixed reviews because of disparities in enforcement.

From college towns to North Shore suburbs, many police departments ignore the law, bypass it or use it only to penalize repeat offenders because of disagreement over whether drinking offenses should be tied to driving privileges.

Those who support the so-called use-lose law argue that inconsistent enforcement compounds the mixed message parents give teens when they downplay risks.

"It just takes away the credibility of what we're doing," said Mundelein Police Chief Raymond Rose, co-chairman of the Lake County Underage Drinking Prevention Task Force. "It's not just about driving. Brain damage occurs. They're dropping out of school. They become alcoholics. There are a lot of ways we're losing kids."

Lake County leads the state in license suspensions with 370 from Jan. 1 through Oct. 15, followed by DuPage County at 358 and McHenry County with 230. Will County had 76. Only 60 license suspensions were reported in Cook County, according to the state.

"Some may feel it's unduly harsh, but at the same time we need to get across that driving is a privilege," said Stacy Vermylen, director of an anti-drinking coalition for Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.

The law says people under age 21 will lose their driving privileges if they are found guilty or granted court supervision for violating laws regarding consumption, possession or purchase of alcohol "regardless of whether a vehicle was involved." The suspension is three months for first offenders.

But in Highland Park, for instance, where 13 students were cited for underage drinking on homecoming after their limousine driver reported them to police, officials say they prefer to handle their teenagers in-house.

By sending first-time offenders to a local administrative hearing, the teens pay a fine to the city but avoid the state penalty, Mayor Michael Belsky said.

"The other state laws that have greater consequences are at our disposal," Belsky said. "It's a stepped approach."

Brenda Glahn, a lawyer in the secretary of state's office, said all towns, even those with administrative hearings, are required to report violations to the state. She acknowledges those that do face the wrath of the affected families.

"I am certainly getting feedback from some people because they hate it," Glahn said. "They are angry they are getting their licenses suspended."

College towns, including Normal and Champaign, as well as Chicago, are among the municipalities that allow offenders to pay a fine at the local level, and the liquor commissioner does not typically forward that information to the state, officials said. Only after offenders fail to pay fines or return as repeat offenders do their chances of license suspension increase, after they are referred to a state circuit court.

Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 15, the secretary of state's office suspended the drivers licenses of nearly 3,040 underage drinkers as a result of the law, introduced by state Rep. Tom Cross (R-Oswego).

Vermylen said she believes few parents or students are aware of the law, and that more education is needed.

The license suspensions have come as a surprise even to some in law enforcement.

Spring Grove authorities recently allowed at least seven teens to rescind their guilty pleas in McHenry County court to keep them from losing their driver's licenses for underage drinking. The teens were among more than 50 rounded up at a barn party in February, some of whom tested positive for alcohol consumption, according to police.

Police Chief Thomas Sanders said the village attorney had worked out a deal with the teens who pleaded guilty that required them to attend alcohol awareness classes, pay $50 to charity and complete 20 hours of community service. But within a few months, parents complained that the teens were notified by mail that their driver's licenses were suspended for three months.

"I almost felt they thought they were tricked into doing it," said Sanders, who said the attorney did not realize the state's zero-tolerance stance. "We felt education and doing the community service would maybe send a good, strong message."

Charges were dropped last month after the teens proved that they had completed the initial court requirements, he said.

One parent, Jaye Passage of Algonquin, said families were afraid they would lose their car insurance. She noted that the teens had left their cars at her house and assigned a designated driver.

"We were all for them paying the piper," said Passage, who said she had no idea her son, a senior, was drinking that night. She thought the teens had planned to save gas by parking at her house.

However, "the kids who did something wrong were punished and punished again," she said. "We should be careful not to keep kids out of college because they had a beer."

In Barrington, police avoid such scenarios by deferring prosecution for underage drinkers if it is their first offense, in order to avoid state involvement, Deputy Police Chief Jerry Libit said. He views the driver's license suspension as a tool for authorities to use at their discretion to deal with repeat offenders.

The law is controversial in the substance abuse field as well because little research has been done to show if it is effective in preventing underage drinking.

"It is still going after the child, who is a victim of the alcohol industry," said Janet Williams, co-chairwoman of the Illinois Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking. Research has shown that raising alcohol prices and forcing beverage companies to stop marketing products to children would be more effective, she said.

"We don't seem to have the political will to go after what will stop it," Williams said.

lblack@tribune.com