A Judge’s Response to Combating Juvenile Impaired Driving
Honorable Philip Trompeter
Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court
Roanoke, Virginia

It has become the maxim of the 1990s that society’s problems can only be solved through a community-wide approach. If the problem is poverty, community members understand what that means. If the problem is child sexual abuse, citizens grasp the issues. If the problem is juvenile impaired driving, however, members of almost every community fail to understand its dynamics.

The following are examples of typical attitudes toward juvenile drinking:

  • “At least my daughter doesn’t use drugs. She only drinks beer,” a mother says.
  • “Well, if they’re going to drink anyway, I’d rather they did it in our house while we’re here to supervise. After all, we did it when we were their age,” a father says.
  • “I told the kids to pour their beer out on the side of the road. The driver only had two beers, and he wasn’t driving drunk. Why give him a juvenile record when he’s such a good kid?” asks a police officer.
  • “Kids will be kids! There’s no DUI here, and we’ve got to turn our attention to those teenagers using hard drugs,” says a judge.
  • “Your Honor, you honestly want me to waste my time prosecuting these kids for having that keg party last Saturday night? They come from good families, and I can’t waste my time baby-sitting some kids while worrying about really serious offenses that need my attention,” a prosecutor insists.
And so it goes.

But judges and other law enforcement officials who deal with issues concerning juvenile impaired driving should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Are juveniles’ drinking patterns different from those of adults?
  • Do I know what is meant by a juvenile’s alcohol-related crash?
  • Do I know why kids are not allowed to drink until they are 21 years old?
  • Do I approach alcohol-related offenses involving juveniles in much the same way as I approach drunk-driving cases involving juveniles?
  • Can I recognize which kids may need court intervention and treatment?
  • Do substance abuse prevention efforts aimed at youths and initiated by the court relate at all to enforcement and treatment issues for kids?
  • Can a law enforcement official positively affect the community by addressing any of these issues?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then law enforcement officials cannot possibly combat the problem of juvenile impaired driving in their communities.

The Sobering Rite of Passage

Teenagers often contend that a law prohibiting them from drinking until they are 21 years old is unfair. If they can vote at the age of 18 and, if male, be required to register for the draft, why are they forbidden to drink? If, at 18, they are adults in the eyes of the law, why are they denied some of the privileges and responsibilities adulthood entails?

These compelling arguments can easily trip up every community player who is tackling this problem. One cannot expect teenagers to respect the law if they do not understand why it exists. And how can one expect parents to dispel the myth that drinking is an innocent rite of passage unless they, too, know the reason for the law? Both juveniles and parents must understand the rationale, and parents must help their children make appropriate choices.

It Is Not All in the Alcohol

Juvenile impaired driving is best understood as a process–and not as a problem represented solely by one’s blood-alcohol level. The most compelling revelation about this process comes from a national survey developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The survey explored and compared drinking patterns of adults and juveniles of driving age. Adults were asked to answer six questions and to give reasons for their answers. Juveniles were then asked to answer the same six questions and to give reasons for their answers. What follows is a summary of the survey results, along with the rationale behind both the adult and the juvenile responses. Additionally, the significance of the juvenile responses is discussed.

Comparison of Drinking Patterns
  Adults Juveniles
1. If you decide to drink anything, how do you consume it? Sip or consume moderately Guzzle orgulp
2. If you now decideto get in your car,where do you go? Home Cruise around
3. What time of theday or night are you most likely to do so? 2:00 a.m.-4:00 a.m. 11:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m.
4. How do you operate your vehicle? Slowly or erratically Fast
5. Is there anyone in the car with you? No Yes, three to five friends
6. Where are you when you decide to drink? At a bar or a home party At a party and arounda car

Adult vs. Juvenile Drinking Patterns

Survey respondents were asked, “If you decide to drink anything [alcoholic], how do you consume it?” Adults generally responded that they sip a drink or consume it moderately. Adults usually are in some sort of social setting, often around food at restaurants or parties, and are more patient about alcohol consumption.

Juveniles generally responded that they consume the drink quickly, guzzling or gulping it. Juveniles attach a thrill to drinking and want to consume all the alcohol that is available. The faster the juvenile consumes it, the faster he or she will feel its effects.

The significance of the juvenile response is that, even if the juvenile consumes only one beer, the alcohol is rushed into the bloodstream and reaches the brain’s sensory areas very quickly. Although the juvenile will not experience drunkenness, the juvenile will feel the effects of the rush of alcohol more quickly than if he or she had consumed it slowly.

Survey respondents were then asked, “If you now decide to get in your car, where do you go?” Adults generally responded that they head home. Adults do not usually drive from place to place after they consume alcohol. In fact, most adults are headed home when stopped by law enforcement officers for alcohol-related offenses.

Juveniles generally responded that they cruise around. Juveniles are very social, and they like to drive from place to place and to see and be seen.

The significance of the juvenile response is that it will take the juvenile more time to get home than it will take the adult. The odds of having a crash increase the longer a driver stays on the road. And this is true even if the driver has had nothing to drink.

Next, survey respondents were asked, “If you decide to get in your car after you have had something to drink, what time of the day or night are you most likely to do so?” Adults generally responded that they drive between 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. Many responded that they would only drive when traffic was minimal, as is the case during those hours. Interestingly enough, the peak hours for arrests of adults for drunk driving— across the nation—are 2:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.

Juveniles generally answered that they drive between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. Most juveniles live in jurisdictions where curfews prevail, and they tend to observe them.

The significance of the juvenile response is that, because there are more cars on the road from 11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. than there are from 2:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m., the juvenile’s odds of having an accident increase considerably. Again, this is true even if the driver has had nothing alcoholic to drink.

Survey respondents were then asked, “If you decide to have a drink and then you drive, how do you operate your vehicle?” Adults generally responded that they drive slowly and, if they have had a lot to drink, somewhat erratically. Unlike juveniles, adults sometimes tend to overcompensate. Many drive slower than the speed limit allows. Ironically, these adults call attention to themselves by doing so and are often stopped by law enforcement officers for that reason.

Juveniles generally responded that they drive fast. Again, if the juvenile has only had one drink, he or she will not be drunk. However, because the juvenile consumed that drink quickly, the juvenile is likely to feel good, causing the juvenile driver to take chances he or she might not ordinarily take–such as driving fast. In addition, many juveniles believe they are invincible, a belief that often prompts them to take unnecessary risks. Juveniles are therefore at greater risk of getting into an accident, and a serious accident at that.

Next, survey respondents were asked, “Is there anyone in the car with you?” Adults generally responded that they have no passengers. In fact, most adults who are stopped for DUI are alone in their cars. The reason? Most adults are wise enough not to ride with someone who is too impaired to drive safely.

Juveniles responded that they usually have three to five friends in the car. Most juveniles are very social, and they like to be in the company of friends.

The significance of the juvenile response is that, in an overwhelming number of cases of alcohol-related crashes involving teen drivers, at least one of those three to five friends had nothing to drink—yet that friend did not drive. Youths tend to be trustful and will often let a friend drive when he or she has no business behind the wheel.

Finally, survey respondents were asked, “Where are you when you decide to drink?” Adults generally responded that they are at a bar or a home party. Adults tend to drink in social settings.

Juveniles generally responded that they are at a party. But in almost all cases, they are also around a car.

The significance of the juvenile response is that it reflects a pattern, not a BAC. It is the pattern of combining social drinking with driving that accounts for juveniles’ alcohol-related crashes—and not simply drunk driving. Consequently, it is vital that judges, police officers, juveniles, parents, prosecutors, and policymakers understand that both high and low amounts of alcohol consumed by kids produce the same result: alcohol-related crashes. This is the true meaning of juvenile impaired driving.

Because motor vehicle crashes are the number-one cause of teen death and serious injury in the United States, alcohol use by juveniles should be considered one of the most critical public health problems today. And remember, alcohol—specifically, beer—remains the number-one drug of choice for American teenagers.

A Springboard from the Court into the Community

This paper takes a different approach to the issue of juvenile impaired driving. The author maintains that there can be no community-wide approach—no united front—for combating teen drinking unless everyone starts from the same point of reference. The following strategies are proposed:

  • Judges should encourage law enforcement officers to regard all alcohol-related offenses by youths with the same seriousness as impaired driving. This requires education. If a judge begins a program similar to the driver’s license ceremony described later in this article, then he or she should invite police officers to attend. Judges should meet with police chiefs and educate them about juvenile drinking patterns. Kids and parents cannot be expected to understand the seriousness of this issue unless the law enforcement community is willing to do the same. Consequently, judges should also educate prosecutors about juvenile drinking patterns.
  • Judges should reinforce law enforcement’s efforts. Judges should make their courtrooms user friendly. They should take alcohol-related offenses involving juveniles seriously by setting special dockets at convenient times for officers, if necessary. If a state does not have an “abuse and lose” law, then judges should assist the police in getting one enacted. Strong and logical sanctions as well as substance abuse assessments may deter teens from committing further offenses. Remember: The number-one predictor of adult onset of alcohol addiction is the age at which a juvenile begins to drink alcohol. Judges should make sure their courts have staff support or community resources to intervene immediately with juveniles who commit alcohol-related offenses. Treatment may prevent juveniles from becoming full-blown addicts.
  • Judges should use their authority to convene community leaders. Judges have the unique ability to assemble community members to address almost any community problem. Judges should encourage local government officials and staff to assess community attitudes about juvenile impaired driving. Judges should explore prevention, treatment, and enforcement efforts with community leaders and help establish a community-wide coalition to monitor efforts in these three key areas. The traffic safety division of the state department of motor vehicles may provide assistance. In addition, judges should review legislation that will enhance their efforts, ranging from juvenile driver’s license requirements to juvenile court jurisdictional issues. Not only will such judges gain the respect of their communities, but they will also be well prepared to help change community-wide norms.
  • Judges should be patient. Changing attitudes is a long process that is often generational in scope, but it can be accomplished, and a great deal of progress has already been made. Just consider how attitudes have changed over the past 20 years with regard to cigarette smoking. Although certain national trends may be important, it is the individual communities in which judges live that must be given attention. Combating juvenile impaired driving is an enforcement effort that can succeed.

A Unique Courtroom Rite of Passage

Unlike any other state in the United States, the Commonwealth of Virginia requires juveniles to receive their driver’s licenses, while accompanied by a parent, at a special court ceremony conducted by the judge of the juvenile and domestic relations court district in which the juvenile lives.2 The judge has discretion in the design of this ceremony. Virginia law also provides for the suspension of a juvenile’s driver’s license (as well as the suspension of the privilege of securing a driver’s license for a juvenile who does not yet have one) as a result of certain alcohol- and other drug-related offenses.3 This law is known as “abuse and lose.”

The author has designed the driver’s license ceremony exclusively around the subject of alcohol and other drug use. Each driver’s license ceremony is usually attended by 75 to 100 juveniles and their parents. Thus, the judge has the opportunity to reach literally every new recipient of a driver’s license in the community, as well as his or her parents.

The cornerstone of the ceremony is the drinking patterns survey discussed earlier. The judge (the author) reviews the entire survey with the courtroom audience, using a chart of drinking pattern comparisons, which is reproduced on a large easel at the front of the courtroom. At the ceremony, the chart does not reveal the answers given by the juveniles in the survey. Rather, the driver’s license recipients are randomly called on to give and explain their answers, while one of their peers records those answers on the chart. The ceremony thus becomes a teaching exercise. This technique involves the students and shows that the responses given were not made up by adults.

What does the driver’s license ceremony teach the new drivers and their parents?

  • It teaches them that drunk driving is not the only cause of alcohol-related accidents.
  • It teaches them that even minimal alcohol use by youths produces the same drinking pattern dynamics as heavy drinking.
  • It teaches them that nearly all teen drinking involves the use of a car.
  • It teaches them why the state has enacted an “abuse and lose” law and what the consequences are for violating it.
  • It teaches parents to exercise serious discretion in letting their teens drive—discretion that can save lives.
  • It teaches teens, in the presence of one another, the consequences for breaking the law, which may ease the peer pressure to which teens are sometimes subjected when they decline to use alcohol.

Additional Benefits of the Driver’s License Ceremony

The driver’s license ceremony can be used as a springboard for the judge to propose other strategies for new drivers and their parents, such as discussions or interventions for alcohol-related services. Note that the answers teens tend to give to the six questions about drinking patterns do not reflect an immoral or irresponsible teenage population; rather, the answers merely reveal how teens most often choose to drink.

The driver’s license ceremony allows the judge to reach almost every teenager and parent in the community, thereby allowing the judge to set a community-wide norm that the use of alcohol and other drugs will not be tolerated. It also lets the students and parents know what to expect from the court system. Consequently, the teenagers may think twice about losing the important privilege to drive.

The importance of the ceremony to parents cannot be overemphasized. As teens approach adulthood, parents often mistake issues of trust with issues of structure. The ceremony ends with new license recipients individually approaching the judge, accompanied by their parents, to receive their licenses. Parents must pledge that they will not give the license to the new driver until parents and drivers have discussed a strategy for dealing with this issue. This literally empowers parents and renews their obligation to continue to monitor this perilous time in their child’s development. It makes parents true participants in the process and partners with the court. Parents and teens are told how to structure their discussion and are provided with information on how they can obtain help for problems that may exist in their family.

The ceremony serves other purposes, as well. First, it allows the judge to showcase the court itself and describe the types of cases heard in the system. Second, special guest speakers from the law enforcement community discuss other ways new drivers could lose the cherished driver’s license. Third, the ceremony reveals to the law enforcement community how committed the court is to youth-related substance abuse issues. Fourth, it provides an outstanding public relations tool for the court by serving as a positive experience to congratulate and honor new driver’s license recipients. In addition, speakers address important topics such as “What can a juvenile expect to happen during a traffic stop?” or “What are the signs of alcohol and other drug use by youths?” The author goes over the format of the driver’s license itself and distributes driving-related information produced by other community agencies or the traffic safety division of the department of motor vehicles.


Juvenile impaired driving is one of the most serious problems facing the nation today. If there is ever to be an end to the carnage it wreaks, law enforcement personnel must educate other community members about its dynamics and work with the public to prevent its occurrence. By exploring prevention, treatment, and enforcement options and by instituting programs such as the driver’s license ceremony, law enforcement personnel can do just that.

2 Va. Code Ann., Section 46.2–336.
3 Va. Code Ann., Section 16.1–278.9.