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Focusing on Drinking and Driving

Plans underway to reduce alcohol-related crashes here.

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, from 2006-11, Fairfax County had 1,941 alcohol-related crashes involving drivers ages 15-24. Some 54 percent happened between midnight and 3:59 a.m., and 10 percent more occurred in January than in other months.

In addition, from 2009-10, 72 percent of the alcohol-related crashes of those ages 15-24 in Fairfax County were county residents. And 21 percent of crashes by that same age group in Arlington County were residents of Fairfax County.

“More males than females were involved in these types of crashes,” said Kevin Bianco, a research and evaluation associate with GMU’s Center for the Advancement of Public Health. “But the number of female crashes is rising.”

He was addressing a recent meeting of the Sully District Police Station’s Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), and the evening was a community forum on drinking and driving by youth and young adults.

It was sponsored by the Unified Prevention Coalition (UPC) of Fairfax County, a nonprofit with more than 50 community partners dedicated to preventing violence, alcohol and other drug use by youth and young adults. Its current goal is to reduce the amount alcohol-related motor-vehicle crashes involving drivers ages 15-24.

In 2012, UPC received a Virginia State Incentive Grant to conduct a community assessment to identify underlying causes of underage and binge drinking that lead to drinking and driving in Fairfax County. So at the Sully District forum — one of five held in the county — Bianco presented facts and sought the opinions of those attending.

He’s helping the UPC and said it hopes to lessen drunk driving in this county by 5 percent in the next two or three years. He defined drivers ages 15-20 as youth or “underage” and those 21-24 as young adults.

The UPC wants to get a better understanding of community perceptions of underage drinking, binge drinking, drinking and driving, and enforcement of the drinking laws. So Bianco asked those at the forum, “Where’s the interplay between knowing drinking and driving is wrong, and driving after having a few drinks?”

CAC Chairman Leslie Jenuleson said there are many factors, but “education is a huge piece of it. Most people don’t realize where that .08 [blood-alcohol content, or BAC] limit is, how their abilities to drive are diminished after drinking and how dangerous it is.”

Mike Shipley of Clifton’s Union Mills community said people’s size and weight also play a role in how alcohol affects them, “but [drinking and driving] is still wrong.”

“Is it acceptable in your community to drink until you’re drunk?” asked Bianco. “Absolutely,” replied Jenuleson. “If you do it at home and stay there, it’s OK — but not if you’re driving.”

“How do you define ‘drunk’?” he asked. “When I talked to some youth [here], they said ‘hammered’ was drunk.”

However, Marguerite Hogge of Centreville’s Mount Gilead community said it means “impairment of some sort affecting your walking and thinking.”

Bianco said “a pocket of alcohol-related crashes by 15-24-year-olds in 2009-10 were also related to bad intersections — where Routes 50 and 28 meet, where Routes 50 and 123 meet, and where Braddock Road meets the Beltway.”

Regarding underage drinking, Shipley said, “I think part of the problem is the way parents raise their kids. But peers are a big part of it.” And police Lt. John Trace noted that, “With social media, kids advertise their parties [online],” so word can spread quickly.

“You hear of kids trashing a house when no one’s home, or older people buying alcohol for them,” added Jenuleson. “So we need our police to keep monitoring this.”

“How wrong do most parents think underage drinking is?” asked Bianco.

“It’s 100-percent wrong,” replied Shipley. “But other people’s perceptions might be different, based on cultural differences, such as drinking at home with their parents.”

When Bianco asked where teens are getting alcohol, attendees said convenience stores. And “where are they drinking it?” he asked. Jenuleson said many of them gather around trailers and community pools to do so. But there are other places, too.

“In houses, in the woods, at sporting events, etc.,” answered Sgt. Bill Fulton, who supervises the county’s SROs (police officers in schools). “They’re also hiding vodka in water bottles. The majority of the alcohol offenses I see in the school system are liquor, not beer. On the first day of school, one student had an incredibly high BAC of .20.”

Bianco then asked attendees for their definition of a designated driver. Said Jenuleson: “I’ve been out and heard people say, ‘I’ve only had one or two drinks, so I’ll drive.’” In a group, added Shipley, “It’s often the least-impaired person.”

If people are unable to drive because they’re drunk, asked Bianco, “Why don’t they take cabs home?” Replied Fulton: “Because then their parents would know what they’ve been doing.”

“How effective do you think your community is at enforcing the laws against drinking and driving?” asked Bianco.

“Very good, but it’s a tough job,” said Shipley. Jenuleson noted that Centreville’s Sully Station II community has a Neighborhood Watch and sends out information from the police regularly. But, she added, “A lot of communities aren’t there, yet. And I think a lot of kids think they’re invincible and won’t get caught.”

The problem, said Fulton, is that “alcohol is socially accepted and easy to get from home and there are ads about it everywhere. So to most kids, it’s not a big deal.”

That’s why, said Trace, “We have to send them a message of zero tolerance.”

Jenuleson suggested the DMV show a movie of alcohol-related crashes while people are waiting there and offer relevant brochures in several languages. She said it should also make drivers “sign something showing they understand the dangers of drinking and driving.”

Thanking everyone for participating, Bianco said the UPC wanted to know “what the community thinks would be most effective here to combat drinking and driving — education, enforcement of the laws or increasing the perception of their enforcement.”

In November, the UPC gave its report of all five community forums to VCU, which is the executor of UPC’s grant. Plans will then be made to carry out the best suggestions received to reduce alcohol-related crashes and deaths. Bianco said the money will “probably” be available sometime this year “to implement our strategies.”

Meanwhile, local residents must remain vigilant of and alert against the dangers posed by drunk drivers. “Alcohol is too easy to get,” said Shipley. “It’s my life and your life out there in jeopardy when people get behind the wheel of a car drunk.”