My Turn: The costs of underage drinking will probably reach everybody

Posted: Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Recently I received a call from a close friend. A friend of hers had been involved in an alleged drunken driving crash in Haines. The truck had held five kids when the driver lost control and went off the road. One of the passengers was killed. Some of the teenagers were under the legal drinking age. Why they lived is a miracle. Why their friend died is a senseless tragedy.

The families all know each other, see each other on the street and in the store and have a history together. They will continue to be a part of each other's lives, only now they will share a dark, ugly story - forever.

Drunk driving and underage drinking is not like in the movies. It's not a brief telephone call from a trooper, consoling hugs from family, and an obit in the paper, all ending neatly with a well-attended funeral.

Drunken driving is a living nightmare that never ends. There isn't "closure" - ask anyone who's lost someone to drunken driving-the wound still bleeds. You just get used to the pain-most of the time.

Drunken driving deaths are messy. It's having to identify the crushed remains of someone you held in your arms moments after birth. Picking out an urn because the body was destroyed from the crash. Losing not only your husband but also a child in the same crash. Maybe your entire family. Try imagining the burial details for that one. It's living with the guilt that they died the day you were both in a fight. It's knowing someone you love killed someone they loved while drunk driving. It's waking up and wishing you too were dead. Silently screaming when you hear "kids are going to drink anyway so let them do it in a safe place." It's picking up the phone to share your day, only to replace the receiver because there isn't anyone to answer your call. It's walking into an empty home, a silent bedroom, a quiet office.

Underage drinking kills. Twenty-seven percent of Alaska high school students admitted to binge drinking within a month of filling out the 2003 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Two hundred-eighty Juneau teenagers were arrested for minor consuming in 2002 but last year that number had jumped to 349. Accepting the theory that "kids are going to drink so hopefully they'll find a safe place when they do so" is a lazy way of dealing with a deadly issue. The brain is still developing until at least the age of 21. Drinking alcohol kills developing cells - they won't grow back. Impaired youths make impaired choices which result in: drunken driving, date rape, pregnancy, burglary, assault and more. Ask anyone in law enforcement, the court system and corrections and they'll tell you almost all offenses occur when alcohol is involved. This includes our youths. We need to remember that tomorrow's drunken drivers, spouse beaters and burglars are today's underage drinkers. Alcohol is a gateway drug, and while the results are not always seen on the outside, sooner or later the young alcohol abuser pays the consequence, and so do you. Nobody gets out of this Russian roulette game safely. There's no going back and there's no "get out of jail free" card. We all pay. The annual cost of alcohol use by youths is the equivalent of $216.22 for every man, woman and child in the United States.

Please be part of the solution to prevent underage drinking: Talk to teens about the dangers, report those who provide alcohol to minors, and please don't believe in a safe drinking place for youths - it exists only in movies.

• Cindy Cashen is MADD Juneau Chapter executive director.

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