Last week, not one, but two news stories surfaced about young people not only driving drunk, but bragging about it on social media. As a mother whose 18-year old son was killed due to the choices of a teen who drove after drinking alcohol and using drugs, these stories both dishearten and disgust me. But as the National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, I am left to ask myself, are we raising the next generation of Ethan Couchs?
Ethan Couch, the “Affluenza” teen, caused four deaths and catastrophic injuries to two others while driving drunk in 2013. Yet, he showed no remorse for causing the devastation. In fact, he bragged to a witness, “I’m Ethan. I can get you out of all this.”
Last week, a teen drunk driver in California live streamed on Instagram the crash in which she killed her kid sister. Just two days later, a young woman in Pennsylvania journaled her evening with a drunk driver on Snapchat before she and two others were killed and another passenger was severely injured.
We are seeing this behavior grow worse with time with shows like “Friends from College” on Netflix glorifying drinking and driving, making it a shtick instead of a serious crime. One episode showed the friends hiring a bus driver to take them on a vineyard tour only to then encourage and in fact goad the driver into drinking.
This trend is all the more frightening in light of the fact that drunk driving fatalities are seeing the worst increases in 50 years and are expected to rise again this year. Our cultural complacency is translating to more needless deaths and injuries.
So what’s to be done?
First, it’s time that the entertainment industry starts treating drunk driving like the violent crime that it is. Drunk driving is not a punchline; it’s a completely preventable choice.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hollywood helped MADD immensely normalizing the concept of designating a non-drinking driver and showing the very real impact of the crime on family and friends. Today, we need that same commitment. MADD wants to work with networks to use one of the most powerful tools to address the urgent social issue of underage drinking and its consequences, including drunk driving.
Second, we need the judicial system to get tough. Judges must give stronger sentences to drunk drivers, even when they are young. Leniency with people who injure or kill due to impaired driving reinforces their devastating behavior. Ethan Couch was only given probation for his crimes. He’s now serving a mere 720 days in jailbecause he violated his already too generous “sentence.”
In 2015, a young woman used Periscope to video herself driving drunk. Thankfully, her adoring “fans” called the police and she was removed from the roads before she could kill or injure someone. The judge in that case gave her 12 months’ probation.
These latest stories provide a disturbing glimpse into a technology-driven generation, who are our future victims and offenders, that drunk driving is no big deal. Instead, we need parents and all adults to keep alcohol out of the hands of youth and have ongoing conversations about the dangerous and deadly consequences of teen drinking youth. No filter can take away that harsh reality.
Drunk driving is still the number one cause of death on our roadways. That’s a fact. While MADD has helped cut drunk driving deaths in half since we were founded, the reality is we’re rolling in reverse as a country. In fact, some have grown to accept the rate of deaths on our roadways. But MADD hasn’t, and we never will.
Colleen Sheehey-Church is national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
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