One out of every five South Carolina high school students has ridden in a car in the past 30 days with someone who had been hitting the booze beforehand.
That’s according to a 2013 statewide survey, and it’s something Liza Powers, 17, aims to change during this year’s prom season.
“My family members have been affected by drunk driving,” the Airport High School 12th-grader said. “I know some neighbors who have lost children to drunk driving. It’s something that needs to be talked about more than it is.”
To that end, Powers and fellow Airport student Nakayla Smith, 15, plan to attend a town hall meeting Thursday at Brookland-Cayce High School Auditorium, aimed at reducing teen drunk driving during prom season.
The event is a joint effort between the Rise Above It Lexington Two Community Coalition and Richland 2’s The Project CARE Coalition. It’s slated for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, at the school auditorium at 1300 State St. in Cayce.
Steven Burritt, program director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in South Carolina, said the event is a chance for parents to learn how to start a conversation with their teens about substance abuse.
“If you’re overdue having this conversation, this is certainly a good time to do that,” Burritt said of prom season.
When that conversation happens, Powers said teens might rebel if parents just lay down the law – so there needs to be a balance of being firm and being understanding.
“I feel like parents should say, ‘You shouldn’t do this, but if you find yourself in a situation where there are drinks or drugs around and you need help, you can call me and I won’t be mad,’” Powers said.
Students such as Powers and Smith are essential to getting teens on board with a message of sobriety, Burritt said.
“We look at peer pressure as a negative thing, but positive peer pressure is so important,” Burritt said.
These students can also help fight stereotypes about teen substance abuse, according to Allison Atkins of LRADAC, which offers alcohol and drug abuse treatment in Richland and Lexington counties.
“There may be a perception that everybody parties or binge drinks, but the truth is, that’s not the norm – it’s a smaller percentage of students who are drinking and driving or using heavily,” Atkins said.
Even if students’ friends drink alcohol, it’s possible to stay sober without losing the friendship, Smith said.
“The people I surround myself with, they might offer it to you, but they won’t pressure you into it,” she said. “(If you decline), they’ll be like, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter.’”
Another message organizers hope adults will take away from the event is that it is dangerous and illegal to buy alcohol for teens, according to Lakesha Fields with the Lexington Two Community Coalition.
Fields said that recent compliance checks by law enforcement have shown that stores are properly restricting alcohol, but that young folks are still getting a hold of it.
“They’re getting it from friends, parents, siblings,” Fields said.
Meanwhile, law enforcement is stepping up its preventative efforts during prom season. In 2015, troopers with the South Carolina Highway Patrol gave 72 prom safety presentations to 50,000 high school students around the state, according to Lt. Kelley Hughes.
Getting teens safely through prom season is a team effort between students, parents, law enforcement and other organizations, according to Burritt.
“Just like the old saying, it takes a village to raise our youth,” he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
About 60 people are killed in traffic accidents in Richland County each year, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. More than half of those involve alcohol or drugs.
The S.C. Highway Patrol investigated a total of 3,236 fatal collisions from 2011 to 2015. Of those, 38 percent were DUI-related.
Eight percent of S.C. high school students have driven after drinking in the past month, according to the 2013 Youth Behavioral Risk Survey.