traffic safety conversation about planning for back-to-school safety typically includes a discussion about school-zone speed limits, pedestrian safety, bicycle rodeos, and parent drop-off zones.
Watching out for elementary and middle school students is an important part of our job, but there will be two more age groups returning to campus this fall that could benefit from some of your attention: high school and college students.
New freedoms and responsibilities await these young drivers, meaning they have an opportunity to increase your crash fatality and injury rates. There are some things, however, that can be done to prevent crashes, injuries, and fatalities.
Schools offer some unique advantages for teaching large numbers of people about the dangers of impaired driving and the need to use safety belts properly. Throughout the year, there are numerous educational and social meetings. For example, student-parent orientation meetings provide you with a captive audience to educate. Various groups, clubs, and associations exist on campus, in addition to driver's education and public health outreach programs that are well suited for traffic safety education.
School administrators have the ability to implement and enforce policies regarding alcohol infractions and operation of vehicles on campus. As some proactive law enforcement agencies have shown, correct use of safety belts can be significantly increased when suspension of parking privileges is the result of nonuse. Similarly, sound policies and penalties for alcohol violations can carry over into safer driving habits.
Alcohol is one of the areas that demands logical, fact-based education in a campus setting. Yes, some kids drink to excess, but the fact is that most young people consume less than many adults think they do. This is the basis for some public education campaigns that seek to refute the idea that students must drink to fit in, when the opposite is true. The University of North Carolina got the message out this way: "Whether it's Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, two out of three UNC students return home with a .00 BAC." The message was similar at Montana State University, where it was found that 81 percent of students at parties consumed four drinks or fewer, and many did not drink at all.
More importantly, recent studies have shown that young people are less likely to get behind the wheel after drinking than in years past. A number of things have influenced this change in behavior. The perception is real in some jurisdictions that police are committed to impaired driving enforcement and violators will be detected, arrested, prosecuted, and punished.
Minimum drinking age laws, coupled with zero-tolerance laws for underage drinkers, have been effective deterrents. For this to be true, however, there must be an understanding of what the laws mean, a belief that they are being enforced, and an understanding that there are real consequences for violations.
Another influence on young drivers has been a couple of decades of traffic safety public information and education, much of it done by law enforcement personnel, that has communicated the real risks of injury and death from traffic crashes and the effects of alcohol on driving skills. Mock crash scenes-something you can start planning now for later in the school year-have effectively communicated the real risk to young drivers and the devastating effects of bad decisions.
Local and national positive role models have appeared, helping youth make better decisions. Alcohol-free events, such as Operation Prom Grad activities, have promoted safe driving during specific times of the school year.
Campus organizations such as BACCHUS and GAMMA at the college level and SADD in high schools have provided advocates and activities for youth.
Community coalitions with a campus traffic safety component have also been effective in changing attitudes and promoting positive outcomes. Multidisciplinary groups often have a broader view of a problem and bring more resources to the table to make change happen.
Police should not overlook the benefits of using the media to encourage safe driving, and campus publications may provide an effective avenue. Aiming a message at this young, high-risk audience can be a challenge, however. When, where, and what they drink may differ from when, where, and what older groups drink.
What is well understood is the influence of family and friends on the decision not to drive after drinking. Empowering this positive peer pressure can work to help young drivers think before they drink and not get behind the wheel.
Other factors influence attitudes toward alcohol use by young people: marketing, availability, promotion at near-campus outlets. Police and alcohol regulatory commissions should routinely check bars and stores for underage purchase compliance, require responsible server training, and discourage retailers from offering low-price drink promotions.
Law enforcement has an opportunity to work effectively through schools and colleges to save lives. We can provide direct education in a classroom setting, work with administrators to strengthen campus policies, mentor on-campus advocacy groups, and follow those activities with strict enforcement of laws that were designed to save young lives.
Young drivers are at high risk for involvement in serious and fatal traffic crashes. Working to educate them at this stage of their driving career will save lives now, and promote safer and more responsible drivers for the future. ■