In what has come with grim regularity, Montgomery County parents are left to bury their children following alcohol-related crashes. This past New Year’s Eve holiday provided another somber reminder of the dangers posed by drinking and driving — particularly among young and underage drivers.
At about 3 a.m. Jan. 1, 18-year-old Kaitlin Gallagher and 20-year-old Nicholas Clayton were killed when the sport utility vehicle they were riding in crashed into a tree in Bethesda. The driver hasn’t been charged; police found open beer cans in the SUV.
In another episode, in December, dozens of Walt Whitman High School students were suspended from extracurricular activities when the school’s principal found out about a house party where alcohol had been served.
In a third, last week, Kevin Coffay, a 20-year-old from Rockville, was sentenced to serve two decades in prison following his guilty manslaughter plea for the deaths of 18-year-old Spencer Datt, 20-year-old John Hoover and 18-year-old Haeley McGuire. Coffay had been drinking and driving when he crashed his car in May 2011.
After he is released, Coffay will serve five years probation, during which he will have to complete 500 hours of community service, have an ignition interlock installed on his car, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and abstain from alcohol and drugs.
Nationally, underage deaths from drunken driving crashes is down — since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began recording alcohol-related statistics in 1982, the number of people younger than 21 killed in such crashes decreased 73 percent, from 5,215 in 1982 to 1,398 in 2009. These fatalities account for roughly 13 percent of the drunken driving fatalities in the U.S.
In Montgomery, the police department does not keep data on the number of underage alcohol citations that are issued. However, there were 188 underage DUI arrests in 2011.
Montgomery County Police Capt. Thomas Didone, head of the department’s traffic unit, believes parents play a critical role in helping educate their children about the dangers of drinking and driving, as well as other hazards on the road.
It can be difficult for parents to talk with their children about drinking without sounding condescending or sanctimonius, but cases like these offer opportunities for frank discussions about lost lives and lost potential.
For years, the county’s schools have participated in programs such as Every 15 Minutes in an effort to educate teens about the dangers of drinking and driving. But year after year, tragedies continue.
Following McGuire’s death, Magruder High School partnered with the nonprofit Drawing the Line on Underage Substance Abuse, which offers an initiative to involve parents in preventing students from drinking.
Parents can sign a “Safe Homes” pledge to be present when their children are having a party in their home, or to have another adult present for those parties. Even a desirable parent-to-student ratio at parties is specified: one for every seven to 10 students.
Drawing the Line’s executive director, JoAnn Binko-Sanders, told The Gazette that getting parents to stop accepting underage drinking is a crucial part of the strategy.
“That’s the mentality that we sort of rage against on a daily basis,” she said. “There is always a parent that says, ‘We did it. It’s a right of passage. Kids are going to be kids.’”
She’s right. It’s time for parents to step up — if they don’t make use of real-world events to teach their valuable lessons, then lives are being lost are in vain.