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Ava's Law: Underage drinking not a rite of passage

Underage drinking is too often treated as a rite of passage by teens, by parents and by the criminal justice system.

In reality, it's a warning sign that a young person may have an alcohol abuse problem.

Without appropriate actions by parents, other adults and the criminal justice system, it can breed the drunk drivers of the future.

That's exactly what happened in Pittsburgh last weekend. A young man who is not even of the legal drinking age hit and killed a 6-year-old girl and injured her mother. That little girl’s name was Ava. Her life is over, and everyone who loved her will never be the same. There is nothing...nothing...that can be done to right this wrong or ease the pain of those who loved her.

This story is especially tragic when you consider it was 100% preventable.

The young man who hit Ava had been cited three times for underage drinking in less than three years. Three times he stood in front of a judge and was given consequences that barely registered: community service and alcohol education for the first offense, a dismissed charge on the second offense and a fine on the third offense. Three warning signs. Three chances to intervene. Three slaps on the wrist.

On the night he hit and killed Ava he was driving drunk, had smoked marijuana and was speeding when he drove into Ava's front yard.

Earlier this year, and the National Center for State Courts released a free, evidence-based online education program for judges who preside over underage drinking cases. The underlying message contained in this program is that judges and other adults must recognize underage drinking as a serious charge. Underage drinking should, at a minimum, result in alcohol screening and assessment to identify alcohol and substance abuse and/or dependence, treatment needs and risk of recidivism.

According to the most recent Monitoring the Future Study, 37 percent of 12th graders and 24 percent of 10th graders reported drinking in the past month. While the majority of kids do not drink underage, when underage drinkers are excused for their behavior or treated lightly by the justice system without regard for the underlying causes of their behavior, the consequences can be deadly...and preventable.

Underage drinking is not a rite of passage. It's a red flag.

Brandy Anderson Nannini is the Vice President of Government Relations and Traffic Safety.

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