Back-to-school season always holds bittersweet memories for me. Seeing kids hop off the bus after their first day of a new school year, as they rush to mom or dad waiting nearby, reminds me of my son, JR, when he was that age. Five years ago an underage drinker took JR away from me. My heart still breaks when I think of him.
On Father’s Day 2011, my firstborn son, Lance Ray Martin, Jr. (“JR”), was driving home from work at midnight on a county road when a 19-year-old female drunk driver crashed head-on into our lives forever. JR died by himself that night on County Road 31, not able to say goodbye to his family and not able to fulfill his dreams.
JR was taught from a young age about the dangers of drinking and driving. His killer, unfortunately, was not. Twenty minutes before the fatal crash, a friend of the driver posted on her Facebook wall, “One of these days you’re going to kill someone driving drunk.” Those haunting words will stay with us forever.
As parents, we have to talk with our children about alcohol, starting at an early age. It’s not an issue we can ignore simply because we believe our child knows better. More than 40 percent of all 10th graders drink alcohol. About 1 in 7 teens binge drinks, yet only 1 in 100 parents believes his or her teen binge drinks. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, last year 70 young people ages 12-20 were killed in our state in traffic crashes involving underage drivers under the influence of alcohol.
Parents — not peers — are the number one influence on their teens’ decisions about alcohol, including their decisions around riding with a drinking driver. We need to let our children know it’s never okay to get into a car with a driver who has been drinking, no matter who the driver is or what the circumstances are.
Talking with your children is just the first step. You must also put those words into action by modeling positive behaviors. A MADD and Nationwide survey found that more than 82 percent of Texas parents surveyed have talked with their children about the dangers of riding with a drinking driver, but more than 1 in 4 parents admitted to riding with a drinking driver in the past year. Nearly 55 percent admitted to having a drink or two at dinner and then driving their children home in the past year.
Our children notice when we don’t follow our own advice and break our own rules. Research from Pennsylvania State University indicates children are more willing to ride with a drinking driver if they see their parents do so.
The consequences can be deadly. Kids who start drinking young are seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash. With teen alcohol use killing about 4,700 people each year, clearly we need to do more to protect our children.
MADD developed its Power of Parents program and resources to help parents of middle school and high school students feel more confident about talking with their children about the dangers of underage drinking and riding with a drinking driver. Parents can download free Power of Parents handbooks and sign up for a free 15-minute online workshop in English or Spanish at www.madd.org/parentstx.
As you help your kids get ready for the new school year, take the opportunity to talk with them about alcohol and take advantage of these valuable resources. One bad decision shouldn’t have to end your child’s life or someone else’s.
JR’s death was 100 percent preventable, as are the nearly 10,000 drunk driving deaths each year — 924 last year in Texas alone. I hope that my message and my work with MADD will help save lives.
Gutierrez is MADD executive director, Texas, and Martin,who lost her son in an underage drinking-related crash lives in Denton.