Above the limit

Drunk driving is still a significant problem for college students

A vehicle accident in Rockbridge County, Va. early Tuesday morning that killed a Washington and Lee University student and left three others seriously injured reminds us that drunk driving remains a major problem for college students.

Ten students were involved in the single-car wreck that occurred about 20 minutes from Washington and Lee’s campus. Twenty-one-year-old Kelsey Durkin, a senior from New Canaan, Conn., was ejected from the back seat and died from the injuries she sustained. Two other students were airlifted to the University of Virginia Medical Center.

Nicholas Hansel, the student driving the car, has been charged with a DUI.

Tuesday’s tragedy has eerie parallels with an incident that took place almost three years ago to the day. On Dec. 12, 2010, six Washington and Lee students were involved in a single-car wreck in Rockbridge County. The drunken crash sent five students to the hospital.

Drunk driving is not a problem “of the moment” in the minds of most college students. When it comes to drinking and when it comes to driving, more subtle risks have received the lion’s share of attention in recent years.

Students can’t seem to put down their phones, even when they’re behind the wheel. Texting while driving has become the taboo du jour. Washington in 2007 was the first state to ban texting while driving. Now, 41 states have similar laws.

Alcohol-education centers targeting college students — take the University’s Gordie Center, for example — generally focus on drinking that happens on campus or at fraternity parties nearby. Such programs aim to curb binge drinking and reduce hazing. Often, these programs promote “safe drinking” instead of suggesting that students abstain from alcohol altogether.

College students are generally inexperienced drinkers and inexperienced drivers. It’s hard enough to keep them from injuring themselves when they drink without driving, or drive without drinking. One reason why drunk driving gets arguably less attention than other health risks college students face is that it’s a no-brainer. By the time they get to college, most students have had it hammered into them — by high school health classes, parents and whoever else — that drinking and driving is a terrible idea.

It’s undeniable that drunk driving is a high-risk activity. But despite how obvious the dangers of drunk driving are, the activity must not recede from conversation when students come to college.

One in five college students admitted to driving while drunk in a 2010 study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health. Each year an estimated 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes, according to a 2009 paper published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among college students, accounting for 6.88 deaths per 100,000 students, according to a 2011 study commissioned by James Turner, executive director of student health at the University. About half of these accidents are alcohol-related, the study found.

It’s evident that drunk driving is a problem of serious magnitude for college students.

In addition, drunk driving’s status as a widely condemned practice is a historically recent phenomenon. Organized opposition to drunk driving didn’t gain steam until 1980, when a woman whose daughter was killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver formed the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD has since become a moneymaking machine — raising $41 million just in 2009 — and has wielded a sizable influence on legislation. Most notably, MADD has lobbied successfully for states to adopt a BAC limit of .08. Previously, legally permissible BAC levels for drivers were as high as .15.

Drunk driving might seem like an old-hat public health problem hardly worth discussing. But alcohol-related vehicle accidents continue to kill many college students every year. And while opposition to drunk driving seems like a sure thing, it’s only been a few decades since that opposition gained prominence and political clout. Drunk driving deserves sustained attention from public-health advocates, especially people who work with college students. We shouldn’t stop talking about drunk driving until college students stop driving drunk.

Published December 3, 2013 in Opinion

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