Photo by Steve LoweryOne of the more intriguing cultural developments of the past decade is the emergence of the Teenager Who Is Not an Idiot. To wit: modern kids drink, do pot and Ecstasy, drive even—and they don't die!
This is a thoroughly alien concept to baby boomers, who perpetrate the hysterical school, law enforcement and media chorus postulating apocalyptic teen perils from Tijuana drinking to rave parties to apple bongs. But state records show that drivers age 19 and younger comprise only a small fraction of the state's booze-and-cruise toll—just 7.3 percent of drunken driving arrests and 7.5 percent of wrecks.
Well, idiot, I hear you say, that's because we've done such a great job of scaring the shit out of teen drivers. Kids don't get arrested or hurt as much as adults because kids don't drink and drive as much as adults.
I know a guy, Dennis Brezina, who's part of Aluminum Anonymous, a group that regularly picks up litter along hundreds of miles of roadways. Brezina estimates Californians toss out 900 beer cans and alcoholic-beverage bottles every mile. Locals are a bit cleaner: on a dozen sites along Pacific Coast Highway and Interstate 215 in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties, his annual pickups yield a mere 800 per mile. Multiply the per-mile number by California's 180,000 miles of paved, major roadways, and you get 144 million cans tossed out per year, give or take a Super Bowl Sunday's worth.
Now, who's driving these wastemobiles? Brezina's guess from the cheapo brands collected: kids, mostly. After all, adults enjoy plenty of bars—biker to fern—in which they can legally imbibe. Plus, they don't have to worry about parents, teachers and tongue-clucking opinionators. Given pleasant tavern ambiance combined with tougher laws punishing drinking and motoring, and you arrive at an obvious question: Why would the over-21 set risk boozing in cars?
However, given even more draconian Orange County school and police zero-tolerance edicts, teen drinkers bent on a little clandestine pffftttthad better ditch the remains of the eve. After all, surveys show tens of thousands of Orange County teens drink on any given weekend, yet only a few dozen get cited for alcohol offenses of any kind.
If we conservatively estimate that teens account for just one-third of the littering—48 million beer cans and ethanol vessels—that means the average rolling teen kegger contains four drinkers, each of whom downs three beers and tosses out the empties—12 cans per mobile teenage Miller Time. That works out to 4 million youthful car-bar outings in California every year, plus all the stationary parties.
Given this barrage of beer-wheeling, we ought to see a dozen teenage pileups every weekend on Ortega Highway alone, yielding mountains of dead kids and shattered windshields with ethanol-reeking teen-shaped holes in them—and very few should be getting away with it. California cops test all drivers in accidents causing death or injury, and even the slightest booze in the blood means arrest for an under-21 motorist. The equipment down at the police officers' station must be working because 200,000 California adults get rung up for drunken driving every year, including 20,000 in mangled conveyances.
It has been a while since I drove around with teenage drinkers. So, I asked my 50 teenage and early twentysomething sociology students to reconcile the mountain of littered beer cans with the molehill of teenage drunken crackups. First, students speculated, the whole premise is wrong: the truth is that teens account for only a small fraction of the can littering. It's adults who are doing most of the slamming and tossing. Why? Because adults today are reckless, rebellious, immature mother-earth-trashing morons warped by Bud bullfrogs and Republican presidents.
Second, they said (many citing personal knowledge), when teens drink in cars, their designated driver stays sober (or mostly sober) while the passengers party. The designated driver rotates from weekend to weekend. Teens soberly ditch cans the morning (or afternoon) after a party to avoid detection.
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The upshot: millions of modern teens drink, but they exercise self-discipline to avoid bloodshed.
Think of the benefits of adjusting American institutions to changing adolescent reality: schools post honor lists of designated nondrinking drivers! Car makers install beerholders for the back seats! County garbage officials erect backroad can-and-bottle-redemption machines equipped with PlayStation consoles awarding full sixers for sober joystick finesse in disposing of empties!
Authorities should lighten up on teenage drinking but sentence kids to 12-step programs for out-of-control littering. Young partiers: You're not wrapping around tollway abutments, but, really, what's with the slob ethic?
UC Irvine 1999 Ph.D. grad Mike Males writes low-selling books, drinks heavily and (naturally) teaches sociology at UC Santa Cruz.