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Will prom be a night you will never forget, a tragic one?
It’s In your court
Judge Steve Halsey
Wright County District Court
Despite all the snow and bitter cold, springtime in Minnesota is just ahead, really! The time of floods, muddy yards, reconnecting with neighbors, throwin’ around the old baseball, and preparing for PROM.
Springtime is the time when teens begin to drive more and are involved in activities like PROM which often involve illegal alcohol use and driving. Spring begins the time of year traffic experts have designated the ‘100 deadliest days’ for teens. Year-round nearly every 7 days in Minnesota a teen driver dies in an auto wreck. I have written about this each spring and do so again due to the importance of this issue.
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. I see cases of teens driving too fast with too many passengers in the car, often with no seat belts worn and with tragic results.
Teens in Minnesota are only 8% of licensed drivers, but account for 14% 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 6 months of being licensed. Graduated licensing in Wisconsin has significantly reduced the number of accidents involving 16 and 17 year old drivers. The Minnesota law includes the following:
• For the first 6 months of licensure, no driving midnight to 5 a.m.
• For the first 6 months, only one passenger under age 20 unless adult present
• For the second 6 months, no more than 3 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
Here are some frightening statistics:
• 10% of 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%)
• Risk of driver death increases greatly with two or more passengers (triples with three passengers)
• Of Minnesota teens dying in crashes only 39% were wearing seat belts
• 73% 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.
Let’s assume on PROM night you allow your teen driver to take his date in the family car. If your child drinks alcohol and drives, that may be the last you see of that car. 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 and a lifetime of anguish.
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, in 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 5 days a teenager dies on a Minnesota road. If one teen a week died of the 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. And YES, it can happen to your child.
Submitted by Judge Steve Halsey, Wright County District Court, chambered in Buffalo.