A new beginning for grads — or a tragic ending?

June 11, 2013 

High school seniors in all seven Thurston County school districts excitedly are participating in graduation ceremonies this month. It’s a time for families to celebrate their graduate’s achievement and for seniors to begin their adult lives with all of its freedoms and responsibilities.

It’s also the time of year that too often ends tragically for someone.

Whether graduates mix drugs or alcohol with their euphoria, a period of time with increased numbers of underage impaired drivers often results in young lives being forever altered or ended.

Who knows what that young person might have accomplished? Who knows what a wonderful mother or father they might have become, and what a happy family they might have created? Who knows what good they might have done, or how they might have positively impacted the world?

We’ll never know the answers to those questions if a graduate makes the dumb decision to drive impaired, or to get into the vehicle of someone who is.

These needless tragedies occur almost every year. The Washington State Patrol increases its surveillance during graduation season, but that’s an end-of-the-line measure that catches only some of the teens already impaired and behind the wheel.

Target Zero Thurston Task Force, sponsored by by Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim’s office, aims to intervene with young people before they make a bad decision. A recent task force action, involving troopers, sheriff’s deputies and a municipal police officer, raided a Lacey house party of underage teens who were all severely impaired, and kept 10 potential drunken drivers off the road.

The Target Zero program focuses on changing a young person’s behavior, so the arrested youths were taken to a public health office and counseled by a chemical dependency professional. We like that the task force is also going after parents and other adults who host or allow these house parties to take place.

As effective as we hope Target Zero will be, it does not attack the newest teenage addiction to smartphones, in particular the growing menace of texting while driving.

Distracted driving killed more than 3,000 people and injured nearly 400,000 others during a 12-month period. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 69 percent of 18- to 64-year-old drivers talk while driving, and 58 percent of 18-year-olds admitted to texting while driving.

Another study determined that drivers looked at their smartphone an average of 23.3 seconds. At a speed of 60 mph, a teen’s vehicle would travel the length of about seven football fields while sending or reading a text message.

Those are alarming statistics, especially considering that some teens send about 100 texts per day.

Law enforcement is doing its part to prevent an accident that turns a joyous celebration into tragedy. Teens and their families must do their part.

The website itcanwait.com offers plenty of resources to get the conversation started, including a horrifying short video created around real-life uncompleted text messages by young drivers who died.

We hope parents will have frank discussions about the dangers of impaired and distracted driving with their graduates, and teens will talk to other teens, as South Sound graduation season gets into full swing.

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