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Editorial: Toward safer prom nights

Hampshire Regional students watch as   police,  fire fighters and students participate in a mock  drunk driving accident Thursday morning, the Friday before prom. Under the sheet is Kezoah Behlke,18, of Southampton playing the dead passenger just removed from the vehicle and getting ready to be put in the Hearse.

Hampshire Regional students watch as police, fire fighters and students participate in a mock drunk driving accident Thursday morning, the Friday before prom. Under the sheet is Kezoah Behlke,18, of Southampton playing the dead passenger just removed from the vehicle and getting ready to be put in the Hearse. Purchase photo reprints »

Traffic deaths during the prom and graduation season are higher among teenagers than at any other time of year. A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes that about 300 teenagers attending proms died in alcohol-related car accidents in recent years.

Nationally, 70 percent of high school juniors and seniors tell researchers they assume their peers will drink and drive on prom night — with tragic results in some cases.

These statistics are startling, especially in light of efforts by school officials, law enforcement personnel and parents to educate students about the dangers of drinking and driving.

With prom night, graduation and other end-of-the-year milestones around the corner, the question remains: How do you keep young people convinced of their invincibility safe from such deadly behavior?

Goshen resident Edward Roberts said when he was in high school, he heard plenty of people speak about the dangers of getting behind the wheel after drinking, but it didn’t deter him.

As he put it, “I was one of the kids sitting in the back who shook my head” and thought “that’s not going to happen to me.”

It did. His 15-year-old cousin was killed when Roberts rolled his truck over in 2007 while driving intoxicated.

Now 31, Roberts shares his story with the aim of sparing high school students the same fate. He spoke at Hampshire Regional High School earlier this month as part of efforts by the school’s chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) to drive home the consequences of drinking and driving to their peers.

The HRHS program included a mock car crash, complete with the town’s emergency responders and dead and injured prom victims played by student actors.

While SADD’s program clearly had an impact on students, only three-quarters of them raised their hands when asked if they felt comfortable calling their parents for a ride home after drinking at a party.

It’s the quarter who didn’t raise their hands we must reach.

How to do that remains a subject of debate, particularly at this time of year. Some parents believe that safety is best assured by not allowing minors to consume alcohol or drugs at their homes. While that approach sends a clear message to students, some parents argue it risks prompting teens to take their partying elsewhere, where no adults are on hand to try to keep them out of harm’s way.

Other families opt to accept that students will drink and believe they can be kept safer by allowing them to drink in a controlled environment, demanding, for example, that partygoers leave their keys at the door.

The Northampton Prevention Coalition at Northampton High School maintains that positive approaches, not the scare tactics employed in demonstrations like mock crashes, are the most effective way to change teens’ drinking behavior. Programs offered by coalitions in Northampton and other area communities seek to change destructive behaviors through peer role models, student discussion groups and parent education.

Even among experts, there’s no consensus on the right approach. What is clear is that we must keep the conversation going, exploring every option to break through teens’ denial that drinking, drugs and other destructive behavior can have deadly results.

Every teenager deserves the chance to enjoy this youthful rite of passage without becoming a statistic.

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