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Driving Drunk With Children in the Car: A Persistent and Deadly Problem

In 2009, a woman in New York City who had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .13 drove her daughter and six of her friends home for a slumber party. She was driving 80 MPH on the Henry Hudson Parkway. She ignored the frightened pleas of her daughter to slow down and ended up crashing the car into a tree. Three of the girls were ejected from the car and 11 year old Leandra Rosado was killed.

This tragic, preventable crash led to the passage of Leandra’s Law in New York which, among other provisions, makes it an automatic felony offense to drive drunk with a child under the age of 15 in the car. Between December 18, 2009 (the day the law took effect) and April 21, 2015, there have been 4,541 charges of aggravated DWI with a child in New York State.

Does that surprise you? It certainly surprised me and I have worked to prevent impaired driving for more than two decades. The sad fact is it is not that uncommon. According to 2014 research by Kelley-Baker and Romano, 14% of all children killed in traffic crashes between 1982 and 2011 were riding in a car driven by a driver with a BAC of .08 or higher.

In spite of vehicle improvements, child restraint improvements and the enactment of child endangerment DUI laws in 46 states and the District of Columbia, these trends have persisted as evidenced by research and new stories like the one out of Austin, Texas last month of a 13 year old girl calling 911 to report that her mom was driving drunk with her in the car.

Children depend on adults, especially their parents, to keep them safe. Why would any adult put their children (or anyone else’s children) in harm’s way by driving drunk with their kids in the car? Some offenders claim they had less to drink than their spouses, so they drove home not realizing they were impaired. Some planned to be a designated driver but drank alcohol anyway and didn’t understand they were over the legal limit. Some may be alcohol dependent and in need of treatment.

Research from 2014 shows that child endangerment laws by themselves have not been effective in reducing child traffic fatalities by drunk drivers. Clearly more must be done but what should be done? Could local jurisdictions and advocacy groups do more to remind parents not to drive impaired with kids in the car? Does local media cover this issue well enough? What will make a difference?

How about a comprehensive approach that includes:

  • Tougher penalties for people who drive drunk with minor children in the car
  • Highly visible publicity for child endangerment DUI laws to create deterrence
  • Consistent enforcement and prosecution of child endangerment DUI laws
  • No plea bargaining, charge reduction or diversion for child endangerment DUI offenders
  • Mandatory alcohol screening and assessment, and if indicated, treatment

What would you propose? Send your thoughts and ideas to [email protected], or to our social accounts @goFAAR on Twitter and on Facebook. We want to know what you think about this important issue and potential solutions.