Seventeen-year-old Josh hops into his car with girlfriend Ashley, and they head off to the prom. Afterward, they go to a party at their friend Zachary's house. Many of the party guests huddle around a keg of beer in the kitchen, including Josh.
Once the party's over, Josh -- after downing a few brews -- drives home with Ashley. But the party will really be over for Josh after he's stopped by a cop and arrested for DUI.
A teen driver like Josh faces loss of freedom and money -- and even scholarships -- if he's got a DUI on his driving record. And Josh and his parents confront the prospect of paying thousands of dollars more for auto insurance.
Partying on prom night
A survey conducted in 2009 by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) of high school juniors and seniors found that 90 percent of them thought their peers were more likely to drink and drive on prom night. The figure was 79 percent for graduation night.
“Newspapers, television, YouTube and Facebook are rife with tales of tragedy from reckless driving on prom and graduation nights, yet an ‘it won’t happen to me’ attitude continues to be so pervasive among our teens,” Dave Melton, a driving safety expert at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, said when the survey results were released.
Yet teen DUI tragedies can -- and do -- happen on prom night, graduation night and every other night of the year. The obvious consequences are death or injury. But there are legal and financial effects as well.
Crime and punishment
In California, for instance, a teen convicted of DUI faces suspension of his driver's license for an average of 12 months, as well as an average of six months in jail or an average of three years' probation, according to StopTeenDUI.com. Oh, and don't forget that the DUI means the teen will have a criminal record.
From the monetary standpoint, the overall tab for a teen DUI in California can easily top $45,000. That includes higher auto insurance premiums over a number of years, DUI classes, legal fees and other costs.
William Piecuch, founder and president of Teens Against Drunk Driving, a Chicago-based advocacy group, says a DUI can even mean missing out on a college scholarship or a job. “Kids just can’t afford the financial side of a DUI,” Piecuch says.
David Seltzer, an attorney in Miami who handles teen traffic violation cases, says that in Florida, a first DUI means six months' probation, a $500 fine and about $1,100 in overall fines. Plus, you’ll have to pay for traffic school. And then there's the hike in auto insurance premiums, which typically adds up to thousands of dollars.
Seltzer says that while he can’t speak for all states, Florida treats teenage drunken drivers as if they were adult offenders.
“They all go through the regular court process, so kids aren’t in the juvenile system over drunk driving cases," Seltzer says. “In Florida, at least, DUIs are DUIs – no matter how old you are."
California takes a stance similar to Florida's.
According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the state has a “zero tolerance” attitude toward teen DUIs. A 16- to 19-year-old arrested for DUI with a blood-alcohol level of 0.01 percent or more or who refuses a blood-alcohol test will have his license suspended for a year, says Steve Haskins, a spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Much like in Florida, teens who are guilty of DUI in California are subject to the same jail time, fines and suspensions as adults, according to Haskins.
The death toll
Of course, aside from the financial effects, teens can be killed or seriously injured in drunken driving crashes. Fortunately, teen-related drunken driving deaths are down nationwide. According to theNational Highway Traffic Safety Administration,the number of teen drunken driving deaths fell 73 percent from 1982 through 2009.
However, hundreds of teens still die each year as a result of teen drinking and driving. Of the more than 5,700 teen drivers killed in 2008 on U.S. roadways, 17 percent were legally drunk, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In 2007, there were 380 alcohol-related traffic deaths among teens during prom and graduation season (April, May and June), according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Parents can play a significant role in reducing the DUI-related teen death toll. In the Liberty Mutual/SADD survey, 36 percent said their parents had allowed them to attend parties where it was known that alcohol would be served, and 14 percent said their parents actually had hosted such gatherings for teens.