By Judge Stephen Halsey of Wright County Tenth Circuit Court
We Minnesotans are in the midst of the 100 deadliest days for teens, and its not from swine flu. Springtime is the time when teens begin to drive more and are involved in activities like prom which often involve illegal alcohol use.
Year around nearly every seven days in Minnesota a teen driver dies in an auto wreck. Recently, a star basketball player in northern Minnesota died when ejected from his vehicle in a single-car wreck because he was not wearing a seatbelt. Use of seatbelts by rural teen male drivers in pickup trucks is extremely low.
I have never seen such overwhelming anguish and sorrow as that expressed at a sentencing hearing by families of a victim killed in a motor vehicle collision involving a young drunk driver. The driver’s family is also devastated by the consequences to the driver. Teen driving offenses have a significant impact on the criminal justice system in terms of law enforcement, public defenders, prosecutors, probation officers, victim support, and judicial resources.
Teens in Minnesota are only 8 percent of licensed drivers, but account for 14 percent of collisions. Once they obtain a driver’s license at age 16 they are given the responsibility of operating and staying in control of an instrumentality capable of taking many lives and damaging thousands of dollars of property. Nationwide, one in five teen drivers aged 16 is involved in an auto accident.
In 2008, Minnesota adopted limits on nighttime driving hours and numbers of passengers for teen drivers during the first six months of being licensed.Graduated licensing in Wisconsin has significantly reduced the number of accidents involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers.
The 2008 Minnesota legislation includes the following:
• For the first six months of licensure, no driving midnight to 5 a.m.
• For the first six months, only one passenger under age 20 unless adult present
• For the second six months, no more than three passengers under 20 unless adult present
• No driver under age 18 may use a cell phone while driving
• All drivers are prohibited for text-messaging or accessing Internet while driving
• For more information, see www.teendriver411.com maintained by Anoka High School SADD
Here are some frightening statistics:
• One in 10 Minnesota teens will be involved in a crash this year
• Most teen crashes are 3-7 p.m., to and from school, and with passengers
• Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of teen deaths (39 percent)
• Risk of driver death increases greatly with two or more passengers (triples with three passengers)
• 2001-05: 369 Minnesota teens died in crashes; only 39 percent were wearing seat belts
• 73 percent of teen driving deaths involve a teen driver
The consequences of a non-DWI traffic violation for a teen driver can be from a small fine or community work service, to a brief loss of license.
The consequences of an “underage drinking and driving offense” (under age 21 and less than .08 blood alcohol) are loss of license, a greater fine, jail time if over 18, and probation for one year. For a DWI conviction (over .08) there may be a loss of license for 90-180 days.
A very serious consequence that most parents do not realize is the forfeiture of the motor vehicle if the driver has a blood alcohol concentration of .20 or greater. By law it is presumed the parent was aware of the teen driver’s alcohol problem. Collateral consequences, of course, include higher auto insurance rates and inability to hold a job requiring a driver’s license. An adult (18-19) teen driver involved in a fatality faces possible prison time of up to 48 months.
There are innovative programs, such as Teen DriveWright in Wright County, to divert traffic offenders from the juvenile justice system into a traffic safety class.
Many teen drivers, and some parents, seem to believe it can never happen to them. But your child could simply exercise poor judgment by riding as a passenger in a vehicle driven by an intoxicated driver. In Oswego, Illinois, February 11, 2007, nine teens and young adults were all in a car operated by a drunk driver who struck a power pole. Four teens died in that collision.
The tragedy is that about every five days a teenager dies on a Minnesota road. If one teen a week died of the swine flu, it would be all over the news and state leaders would probably call for a summit to address the danger.
Please take a few minutes to talk to your teen driver. Make a contract with them to follow the rules listed above. Consider telling them that no matter where they are, no matter what time of day or night, they must call you if they need a ride . . . no questions asked.
We don’t want to see you or your child in court as someone touched by the poor driving of a teen.