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March 24, 2004 - Two Out of Three Children Killed in Alcohol-Related Crashes Were Riding with a Drinking Driver, MADD Warns

Citing a recent federal study showing that hundreds of children die every year while riding with a driver who had been drinking, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) today called for tougher child endangerment laws, stricter enforcement by police and prosecutors, and training and public awareness for judges, attorneys, law enforcement, family services and other officials.

A recently released study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 2,335 children died in car crashes involving drinking drivers between 1997 and 2002; of those children killed, 68 percent were riding in the car with a drinking driver.

Today MADD releases a new report, "Child Endangerment Report: Every Child Deserves a Designated Driver," which outlines weaknesses in state laws against child endangerment and calls for increased penalties and more training and awareness about the problem. The report, which was prepared by a panel of national experts, found that drivers who are caught drinking and driving with a child in the car are often not charged with child endangerment and that when such charges are brought, they are often reduced through plea-bargaining or dismissed.

MADD National President Wendy J. Hamilton said the report highlights the dangers faced by large numbers of children. "No child should be put at risk by having to ride in the car with a drinking driver," Hamilton said. "We call on lawmakers and public safety officials to do more to stop drivers from taking deadly chances with the lives of kids."

"Driving intoxicated with kids in the car is a form of child abuse pure and simple," said Hamilton. "It must not be tolerated by lawmakers, communities, or family members." The MADD report makes several recommendations, including calls to:

-- Provide public awareness and training on child endangerment issues for judges, attorneys, law enforcement, family services, and other heath and safety officials.

-- Establish state child endangerment laws that apply specifically to children at least 16 years old.

-- Increase enforcement of child passenger safety laws, adopt primary seat belt laws, and consider a provision for adding points to driver's license records for violations.

-- Provide for the revocation or suspension of drivers' licenses for alcohol-related child endangerment violations.

-- Require installation of alcohol ignition interlock device on vehicles used by a child endangerment offender to transport children.

-- Include a mandatory provision in every separation agreement and divorce decree that prohibits either parent from drinking and driving (or driving under the influence of other drugs) with minor children in the vehicle.

The CDC study, as published in a recent issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that the majority of children who died in alcohol-related crashes were not riding in proper child- safety restraints. Of the 1,451 children killed in such collisions about whom there was information available about child-safety restraints, only 466, or 32 percent, were properly buckled up. The study also found that the majority of drinking drivers in those crashes survived, suggesting that more children may have survived if the driver had placed them in appropriate child safety seat equipment.

"Interventions such as sobriety checkpoints and vigorous enforcement of child safety seat and seat belt laws save lives. We also know that primary seat belt laws, which allow police to stop and ticket a motorist solely for being unbelted, work to reduce crash deaths," said Sue Binder, MD, CDC Injury Center director. "Broader use community-based interventions such as these will help protect our nation's children from the dangers of alcohol-impaired driving."

The MADD report highlights the January 1, 1998, death of Carlie McDonald, a 5-year-old Wyoming girl killed by her intoxicated mother who was driving with a blood-alcohol content level of 0.22, more than twice the illegal limit. At the time of the crash, Carlie was placed in a front seat; a safety booster seat was unused in the back seat.

"Nobody should have to go through what I have after I lost Carlie," Carlie's father, Lieutenant Carl McDonald of the Wyoming Highway Patrol, said. "Adults who drink have no business driving in any circumstances. But getting behind the wheel drunk with a child in the car is a crime that needs to be enforced and punished severely."

MADD has prepared a series of tips for families and agencies who work with children:

-- If you see an adult who is visibly impaired attempting to drive with a child in the car, calmly suggest alternative transportation, recommend the driver postpone travel, or offer to drive the child. Also, call 911 with as much information as possible, document the situation, and notify another parent or caregiver immediately.

-- Parents dealing with repeat violations, child custody and visitation should ask a third party, like a neighbor, to witness when the child is picked up, and request a court-ordered alcohol and drug assessment that will consider some of the provisions described in MADD's recommendations above.

-- Caregivers should teach children techniques for keeping themselves safe. If children are forced to ride with an impaired driver, they should sit quietly in the back seat with their seat belts buckled and their belongings on the floor, and tell a trusted grown-up immediately about any unsafe ride. Adults interested in empowering children with these tips and other safety messages, can request that MADD's nationally-recognized Protecting You/Protecting Me program be incorporated into their elementary school curriculum.

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