The Oregonian, March 24, 1996, p. E3

The myths of the young give parents nightmares

Robert Landauer

"Too young to die." That phrase panics parents for good reason. They know it's a myth.

Teen-agers may be care-free. But they aren't risk-free. One bad decision - drinking and driving, driving with a drinker, a reckless moment - can be fatal.

A grotesque "Thrill Hill" auto accident in Portland nine days ago engraved fear for the young on our minds again.

From 1986 through 1994, 439 Oregon youths under 21 were involved in alcohol-related fatalities. That's four dozen a year. The tricounty metropolitan Portland area had 129; Multnomah County, 70.

A Multnomah County task force advises on how to deter teen-age alcohol and drug abuse. Many comments at a March 12 session are suggestive - and worth your mulling.:

  • Oregon's legal threshold for drunkenness is blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent. Carol Bonnono, an emergency room nurse and health care representative to the task force, says the average in Multnomah County fatality cases is 0.15, almost double the threshold, "and the average in the emergency room (after auto accidents) is 0.22 to 0.24 - much higher even than in fatality cases."

    Bonnono says Australian hospitals routinely draw a blood sample for police at the same time they draw a hospital sample following auto accidents.

    The implications: Driving is a privilege, not a right; public safety is a government duty; Australia applies that formula in a way that Oregon should consider copying.

  • Police in Multnomah County prefer not to arrest young people for booze-related infractions. Task force statistics showed only 15 such arrests in 27 months ending in March 1993. Instead, police cite the youngsters with a violation called "Minors in Possession of Alcohol," or MIP in street jargon. In 1992, the Juvenile Court sent 426 MIP letters to parents offering a diversion process:

    "The court agrees not to prosecute your child for the charge if the child agrees to do the following: (1) Attend one alcohol and drug education class at Mainstream Youth Program; and (2) Attend one individual session with a counselor at Mainstream to discuss drugs and alcohol."

    Heck of a deal!

    The flaw, the task force insiders suspect, is that many, maybe most, ignore the diversion offer and suffer no consequences.

    Michael Harper, insurance industry representative to the task force and former Trail Blazer player: "We tell people there is zero tolerance. It isn't true."

    Linda Powell-Grady, adolescent substance abuse specialist at Mainstream, is a treatment representative: "Many of these MIP kids fall through the cracks . . . We encounter kids bragging about getting four MIPs with no consequences."

    And the kids know it, came the cry from the specialists around the table.

    So how should we treat MIPs who become MIAs - and maybe future road-combat KIAs?

    If zero tolerance were more than hot air in a windsock, we would impound the cars they drive until they met the diversion terms. Mom and dad would pay attention, too, especially if the car was theirs.

    But alas, the task force approach is more sober. Young drinkers can become old drunks, the group agrees. So the public should want a law that makes sense; that means what it says about MIP; that can be coordinated among counties; a law whose effects can be tracked so that the police, courts, treatment facilities, drivers-licensing agencies and the insurance industry can follow up on high-risk offenders.

    The task force probably also needs to identify the MIP behavior that best predicts continuing risk to the youths and society.

    Then consequences appropriate to the risk can be targeted and intensified, says Jim Peterson, director of Mainstream. Multnomah and Clackamas counties refer youths charged with drug and alcohol violations to this agency for assessment, education and treatment diversion services.

    "The intent," says Peterson "is to get youths and their families to look at what that behavior means to them, and what the risks are to them, and then to make better choices."

    Better choices than ending up in a hospital or on a mortuary slab.

    Robert Landauer is editorial columnist of The Oregonian. He can be telephoned at 221-8157 or reached by mail at 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland 97201.



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