Opinion: Teen driving tragedies provide a catalyst for change

By Pam Slater-Price, Bill Gore and Nick Macchione

In October 2009, a Torrey Pines High School student was driving while drunk. He crashed his car in Rancho Santa Fe, killing one passenger.

Months later, a 17-year-old cheerleader from Poway High School drove her SUV while intoxicated, lost control and the car flipped many times. She died 90 minutes after texting her friend, “I’m hammered.”

These devastating examples provide an all-too-familiar reminder that teen drinking and driving is destroying lives in San Diego communities.

The rate of alcohol and drug-related accidents among drivers ages 16-20 is at the same level as in 1996, according to the 2009 San Diego County Report Card on Children and Families. Young people continue to use alcohol while operating motor vehicles.

With nationwide advertising flaunting the virtues of alcohol, the county’s battle against drinking and driving is like fighting Godzilla armed with a fly swatter. The top U.S. beer maker spent $1.36 billion on advertising in 2007.

The County of San Diego is making a push to address this regionwide problem of unsafe driving by teens. Recently, our Sheriff’s Department and Probation Department received $975,000 in state grants for DUI checkpoints and monitoring efforts. Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors allocated $30,000 toward a teen driving control clinic at Qualcomm Stadium. More than 100 teens and their parents participated in an interactive program designed to teach safe-driving practices.

In recent months, we have been developing a plan to promote safe driving and reduce teen drinking and driving. With help from prevention coalitions, law enforcement, schools, families, and businesses, we are making headway.

In May, the Sheriff’s Department began training deputies and teaching driver education and safety courses for new teenage drivers. Titled “Start Smart”, this free two-hour course provides teens and their parents with an array of important messages about avoiding collisions, safe driving habits, and parental roles concerning their teen driver.

We look forward to building on the great things being done in San Diego to prevent teen driving tragedies. But we must do better in San Diego to keep our communities safe. Get involved and talk to your teen now, rather than later, about the perils of unsafe driving.

Pam Slater-Price chairs the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, Bill Gore is the county sheriff and Nick Macchione is the county’s health and human services director.