Parties, friends and late night drives. The lives of many teens revolve around these three things. However, many do not realize that what seems like an innocent night out may turn into a deadly tragedy. As more teens are starting to get behind the wheel while under the influence, underage drinking is becoming an epidemic of its own.
Drinking and Driving in Collier County: Increasing rates
Collier County sheriffs have expressed concerns that even the local community can see the impacts of climbing rates of teen drinking and driving.
“We see it via social media. We see it via the accident reports that come through and then just through pulling over cars. We know that it is on the rise with our youth,” Cpl. Alison Disarro said. “They think that they are immune to it and [that they have] control of this, when it’s actually the opposite.”
Effects of Alcohol on the Body
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), alcohol impairs all of the abilities that are necessary for safe vehicle operation, including brain function, thinking, reasoning and muscle coordination. When alcohol is consumed, it goes into the bloodstream and accumulates, increasing its effects on the central nervous system.
These changes in the body are further amplified in teens, who have less driving experience and whose brains are not yet fully developed. As a result, accidents may unfold, something that is becoming far too common in Collier County.
“We have a lot of accidents, especially somewhere like here in Naples, where we just have so many people to begin with,” Disarro said. “When you mix in the alcohol and the narcotics it just adds more of an equation for there to be more accidents on the road.”
Alcohol is not the only culprit causing challenges on the road, as there is also an increase in drug use. The increasing popularity of tobacco products has only added to this growing issue.
“A lot of teens are addicted to nicotine these days,” senior Liberty Wilken said.
Officers warn that even drugs used for medical purposes can impair driving, causing drivers to be under the influence the same way as with alcohol.
“Drug usage has gone up quite a lot with the introduction of synthetic marijuana, with dab pens and things like that,” Disarro said. “People think because it’s medicinal that it’s okay, but it’s the same thing as driving under the influence. It’s just a different version. It delays your responses a little bit differently than alcohol, so it causes a different effect when you’re in control of a car. We’re seeing a lot of accidents where it’s not alcohol, so we’re not getting the smell from it, but we can tell by the indicators of the eyes and the response that it is different and is some type of narcotic.”
Drinking and driving not only causes severe risks to life and property, but it also has severe legal consequences as well. These can include tickets, citations and license revocations, as well as drug and alcohol classes and probation.
“For teens, it’s a traffic offense, and you can lose your license,” Disarro said. “If there’s a car accident involved, you can be punished by the state of Florida and your license be held from you, so you can’t get your license reinstated because you’re under 21. As an adult, you can get it for work purposes, but for a teen they’ll just take it away. [If] you hit somebody or you kill a passenger in your car or somebody else, you will do jail time.”
However, the consequences can go even further due to the financial setbacks that also occur with an accident. Some examples include payments to get a car out of a tow yard and court costs.
“In our county, to get a DUI through the court system and be cleared is about $18 to 20,000,” Disarro said. “You have to educate your kids on both sides: the financial costs and the freedom of having a driver’s license, but then also if there’s an accident, the lasting effect that it can have on you.”
Many are apprehensive to go out on the road because of the possibility of encountering a driver who is not in control of their car. Responsible behavior can go a long way in preventing these traumatizing experiences.
“I sometimes feel worried about losing someone I love or getting into an accident myself because of alcohol, especially if it is because an irresponsible person decided to get a drink and go for a drive afterwards,” junior Adria Morales said. “I feel that as part of a community we should be conscious of our actions mainly behind the wheel.”
Officers emphasize the importance of making smart decisions as both parents and teens in order to create a neighborhood that is safe for all drivers and pedestrians.
“Parents want to give their children the opportunity to maybe experience having drinks, even though they’re underage. We know that there are parents that do allow it,” Disarro said. “The most important thing is, not saying that it’s okay for parents to do that, but if it’s going to happen, don’t let your kid drive.”
As parents navigate the teenage years, it is important for them to make drinking and driving a key part of their kids’ education.
“You have to educate your kids on the seriousness of this. If things like that are going to go on, then be smart about it,” Disarro said. “We’re not dumb. We know what goes on. Everybody was a kid at one time. We know that kids are going to experiment and they’re going to do things, but just be smart about it. That’s all we ask.”