Driving Drunk With Kids: What Are They Thinking?

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Diane Schuler was drunk and high when she drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway in Westchester County, NY, killing herself, three adults, and four children—including her own daughter. Carmen Huertas had been drinking in Manhattan before she tried to drive seven children to the Bronx. She lost control of her car and killed one of her young passengers. In Florida, Leonel Ramirez had a cocktail in the cup holder and a bottle of tequila on the backseat – along with his 14-year-old son. A 12-year-old girl from Long Island saved her own life when she called 911 from the backseat of her mother’s car and reported that her mother was driving drunk. Last week in Harris County, TX, six people were arrested in two days – all for driving drunk with children in tow.

Unfortunately, these tragedies are not uncommon. In 2003, 47 percent of children killed in alcohol-related crashes were in the same car as the drunk driver. These aren’t random killers – they are parents driving their own kids and their kids’ friends to a sleepover, to school or to the weekend soccer game.

Many of these adults – who put their own lives and their children’s lives at risk – are struggling with the disease of alcoholism. They are in a phase familiar to most of us: denial. They may be highly functional, appear stable, hold respectable jobs and serve as leaders in their communities. Diane Schuler’s husband, for example, extolled his wife’s public behavior, didn’t know about her alcohol abuse, and declared that her marijuana use was “harmless.”

The truth, however, is that illicit drugs are never harmless, and driving while intoxicated is illegal and can be fatal. Risking someone else’s life adds a new level of irresponsibility. Specific child endangerment laws impose sanctions against adults driving drunk with passengers under the age of 18. In New York, Leandra’s Law (named after the 11-year-old girl who died in Carmen Huertas’ station wagon) makes it a felony to drive drunk with kids. Many other states, including Texas, have similar laws. Denise E. O’Donnell, Commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, is correct in announcing that these laws “give children a voice, a voice that should be heard loud and clear by anyone who would dare transport a child while they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”

But let’s also look at the bigger picture: whether the passenger in your car is a seven-year-old, a 17-year-old, or a 70-year-old, the risks are the same. In any situation, driving while impaired or intoxicated is reckless and irresponsible. If you drink and drive, you are turning your car into a 4,000-pound weapon – and putting yourself and everyone around you in danger of injury or death.

What makes someone willing to take that risk? Are these drivers stupid? Ignorant? Do they think they’ll outsmart or outrun the police? No. They just don’t want to admit that alcohol has had an effect on them.

The reality is that alcohol affects all of us; it impairs judgment, thinking, reflexes, and emotions. It is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above .08 percent, or about four to five drinks (6 oz. wine, 1 oz. liquor or 8 oz. beer =1 drink). If, at that level of intoxication, you are still able to find your car keys, start your car and begin to drive, then you have a tolerance for alcohol – and yes, you have a drinking problem. Now – keep driving, and you will likely also have a legal problem.

Drunk drivers – whether they are teenagers, adults, parents or grandparents – put us all at risk.  I’m asking all of them: can you and will you take responsibility and stop drinking and driving? If not, I’m begging you – let us help.

Deni Carise, Ph.D.

Chief Clinical Officer, Phoenix House

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