Editorial

Editorial | The peril of children in cars with drunk drivers

May 14, 2014 

The following editorial appeared May 9 in the Chicago Tribune:

Four-year-old Taylor Dyer died in what authorities say was a drunken-driving car crash last weekend. He was a passenger in an SUV that struck a concrete median on Interstate 55 in in Bolingbrook, Ill., flipped, and ejected him and two other young boys from the back seat. The other boys, 2 and 7, were seriously injured.

The alleged drunken driver who caused this horrific accident? Shannard Dyer, Taylor’s father. He has been charged with six counts of aggravated DUI.

Many people think DUI-related deaths among children typically happen when an impaired driver crashes into a car in which children are riding. But a study published recently in the journal Pediatrics confirmed earlier studies that show that’s not true. The study found that 65 percent of children killed in crashes involving alcohol are riding with the impaired driver.

The horrific toll: From 2001 to 2010, 2,344 children under age 15 were killed in crashes involving at least one alcohol-impaired driver, the study found. Illinois recorded 42 of those deaths.

Other disturbing findings:

–Child seat belt use decreased as the child’s age and the blood-alcohol level of the driver increased. The drunker the driver, the older a child, the less chance the child will be belted in.

–In more than 7 of 10 cases, the impaired drivers survived the crash in which their child passenger died. That strongly suggests that had the child been properly restrained, he or she would have survived as well.

–Drunken-driving crashes in which child passengers died were more likely to involve only one vehicle and happen at night compared to crashes in which children died as passengers of nondrinking drivers.

Encouragingly, the number of children killed riding with an alcohol-impaired driver decreased by 41 percent in the decade studied, the authors reported. That mirrors a national decline in motor vehicle crash deaths and drunken driving deaths over the same period.

What will it take to drive down these appalling figures? The study’s authors suggest expanded use of sobriety checkpoints, tougher enforcement of DUI laws and seat belt laws, and wider use of ignition locks for DUI offenders, even first-time offenders.

“These are tragedies that we’ve got to find ways to prevent,” says lead author Dr. Kyran Quinlan, a pediatrician at Erie Family Health Center in Chicago.

People know that if they get caught driving drunk they'll likely lose their license. But they may not know that if they’re convicted of drunken driving in Illinois and had a child in the car at the time of the violation, they face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine even if no one is hurt.

Shannard Dyer is out of the hospital and in jail, awaiting trial. The courts will decide Dyer’s innocence or guilt. If he is convicted, the punishment may be harsh or light.

His son will still be dead.

Anyone who gets drunk and then piles kids unrestrained in the back seat of an SUV isn’t likely to be persuaded by all the powerful reasons not to do that. That person serves best as a warning to others: You may not die from your recklessness but … you may wish you had.

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