WASHINGTON – Americans should be worried about teen drunk and drugged driving during the holiday season,federal officials said Thursday,because the teens themselves aren't particularly worried about it.
National drug czar John P. Walters said that teens don't think driving while high on marijuana is nearly as dangerous as driving drunk. This has led to the National Office of Drug Control Policy's “Steer Clear of Pot” campaign during December,shifting the focus from “don't drink and drive” to “don't drive while impaired.”
“Marijuana is thought of as the soft drug,” he said,“and it's causing a significant increase in crashes and in deaths.”
Walters,who was appointed by President Bush in 2001,has spent $10 million on drunken and drugged youth driving education this year alone. Officials highlight the issue in December because they expect more impaired drivers on the road after holiday parties.
“A designated driver does not mean the least drunk or stoned person at the party,it means a sober driver,” said Dr. Jeffery W. Runge,National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator. While not condoning drug use at teen gatherings,Runge stressed the importance of at least one sober person to drive everyone home.
The leading cause of death for those under 21 is accidental injury,according to the National Center for Health Statistics,most of which result from automobile crashes. Over 10 years,the number of teenage drivers increased 7 percent,while the number of teenage traffic fatalities went up 13 percent,according to 2003 NHTSA statistics.
Officials say crashes are not just a result of inexperience and speed – alcohol and prohibited drugs,especially marijuana,are often at fault.
“There is this misperception that you can drive stoned,” said Steve Wallace,chief executive officer of Students Against Destructive Decisions. “I call it,the phantom menace.”
According to a SADD study,30 percent of teens cited “planning to drive” as a reason not to drink,while only 18 percent said the same thing about marijuana.
Bill Morrison,a Montgomery County,Md.,police officer and drug recognition expert,said that youths don't fully realize how marijuana can impair them – up to 24 hours after smoking.
“Most of the kids we talk to say they feel very mellow after smoking marijuana,” he said. “A lot of them think that they drive better stoned.”
According to Officer Derek Baliles,Montgomery County Police spokesman,11 teens died in car accidents in the county in the past year,two of which were associated with alcohol abuse. The number of teen fatalities is unusually high,Baliles said. He did not know if any of the accidents involved drugs.
“Drugging and driving remains a clear and present danger,” said Runge. “People who make that choice will be detected,arrested,and prosecuted. Law enforcement officers will be out in force this holiday season.”