For teenagers and their families, spring is synonymous with events commemorating life’s milestones. And the biggest celebrations center on prom night and high school graduation. But the memories of these happy occasions can be irrevocably marked when a teenager is killed in an alcohol-related car crash. Efforts to prevent such tragedies should start long before senior year, when parents model and discuss the attitudes and behaviors toward alcohol that will help their children stay happy and healthy for decades to come.

The rate of alcohol-related fatalities has been on the decline in Maine within the past several years. Our state’s least experienced motorists, however, are an exception to this trend.

Between 2012 and 2014, drivers ages 16 to 20 were second only to 21- to 24-year-olds in their rate of involvement in fatal drunken-driving accidents, according to the state Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. In fact, operating-under-the-influence fatality rates have been rising among both age groups since 2008-10.

How can this be? Preventing substance abuse by young people has been a top priority among lawmakers, educators and law enforcement for the past several decades. And Project Graduation, the program intended to replace boozy post-commencement parties with supervised, alcohol-free celebrations, emerged in Maine in 1980 after a string of teenage deaths and injuries in the western region of the state, most of which were attributed to drunken driving.

But anti-alcohol and drug abuse initiatives haven’t quelled young people’s curiosity and desire to take risks. Quite the opposite. Nearly 25 percent of Maine teenagers report they’ve been drinking in the past 30 days, according to a state survey of Maine students in grades seven through 12, and about 12 percent have been binge drinking (defined as having five or more drinks within a couple of hours).

Meanwhile, a separate survey found that just 3 percent of the parents of Maine teenagers believe their child has had more than a taste of alcohol within the past month. What’s more, a mere 0.3 percent believe their child has been binge drinking within two weeks of the survey.

The disconnect is a massive one. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As Portland-based 21 Reasons notes, parents are the top influence in their children’s lives, and there’s a lot they can do to sway young people toward healthy behavior. The nonprofit group recommends, for example, that parents get to know their child’s friends and their parents; stay up until curfew and talk with their teenager about the night’s events; and discuss the family’s rules for underage drinking.

As teenagers grow and prepare for their adult lives, it’s easy to believe that they’re ready to take on the world. The facts about young people, driving and drinking prove otherwise. And parents should equip themselves to teach their children how to handle one of life’s biggest risks.


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