Study: Teen drivers often impaired on New Year's

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The results of a new survey might be sobering, if not a bit terrifying, to anyone planning to be out and about tonight.

More than 1 in 10 teenagers in the survey said they have driven under the influence of alcohol or drugs on New Year's Eve.

The nationwide survey of more than 1,700 high school juniors and seniors was commissioned by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions.

While they said it was important for parents to take an active role in discussing the dangers of driving under the influence, they also noted what appears to be a growing tolerance of underage drinking by parents.

Thirty-seven percent of the respondents said they are permitted to drink in the presence of their parents, up 7 percent from a survey two years earlier. Some 47 percent said they are allowed to go to parties where alcohol is being served, up 9 percent from 2010.

"Many adults have a 'been there, done that' mentality when it comes to the issue of impaired driving among teens," said Stephen Wallace, a senior adviser for SADD, in a statement accompanying the survey findings.

"There are approximately 3,000 teenage driving-related deaths a year, a third of which involve alcohol," said Dave Melton, a driving safety expert with Liberty Mutual. "Parents have to play an active role in preventing underage drinking. Talk to your kids before New Year's celebrating begins and make sure they understand the importance of making smart, and possibly life-saving, decisions."

Jim Struzzi, local spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said the survey results were "kind of frightening."

"It's amazing to me that teenagers would say they were going to do that, knowing the consequences," Mr. Struzzi said. "Driving under the influence is never a good decision. We encourage anyone who chooses to drink to designate a driver before they start."

The survey sponsors said New Year's Eve is the most common night of the year for teens driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and that nearly half of the students questioned said they consider driving on that night to be dangerous.

If there was a bright spot in the findings, it was that 87 percent said they would ask someone who was under the influence not to drive, and 92 percent said they would give up the keys if asked by a passenger.

Mr. Melton recommended that parents and teens sign the Parent/Teen Driving Contract that is posted at www.LibertyMutual.com/TeenDriving.

Pennsylvania state and local police are taking part in Operation Safe Holiday, an enforcement campaign against impaired and aggressive driving and those who don't use seat belts. It includes sobriety checkpoints and roving patrols.

Pittsburgh police will conduct DUI enforcement tonight with an increased presence in what spokeswoman Diane Richard called "high-profile party areas."

PennDOT reported 1,994 crashes and 19 deaths in the state over the Christmas and New Year's holidays last year.

Under state law, a driver under the age of 21 is considered legally intoxicated with a blood alcohol level of 0.02 or higher. The drunken driving threshold for adults is 0.08.

Those under 21 who are convicted of driving under the influence face severe penalties, including a 12- to 18-month license suspension, 48 hours to six months in jail, and fines from $500 to $5,000.

nation - neigh_city - Transportation

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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