Strong success has marked Tazewell County’s efforts over the past decade to curb drinking and driving by its high schools’ students, particularly seniors, a state survey showed.

Yet that statistic climbed recently, at the same time that the percentage of seniors driving after “getting high” on drugs – most often marijuana – soared, according to the survey.

Senior students’ anonymous answers for the survey, conducted last year, revealed that 37 percent of them had drunk alcohol within the previous 30 days. That is the highest response since 43 percent was recorded 10 years earlier, and 10 percent higher than in 2012.

Those findings caught the attention of several dozen education, health and law enforcement officials who attended an Awareness Breakfast held this week by the Tazewell Teen Initiative at the Morton Park District headquarters.

The TTI coalition was formed in 2006 after 15 Tazewell teens died in vehicle crashes, many of them alcohol-related, over a 15-month period.

County Coroner Jeff Baldi told the audience his office has recorded only one crash-related teen death since he took office five years ago.

“You’ve really affected a lot of lives” through TTI’s efforts to educate the county’s youth and parents about the dangers of intoxicated driving, Baldi said.

The message, however, may be slipping by the county’s latest teen generation, judging by results of the 2016 Illinois Youth Survey.

It’s conducted every two years by the University of Illinois, with results collected by high schools statewide. Every Tazewell County high school and most junior high schools participated in last year’s survey, said Kerri Viets, program director for the Tazewell County Health Department, which coordinates TTI programs.

The survey “is the voice of our youth telling us what’s going on with them,” Viets said.

Its results showed that last year 23 percent of Tazewell’s school seniors acknowledged they had driven after “getting high,” typically on marijuana. That was nearly twice the level reported in 2014, Viets said.

Twelve percent of seniors said they had drunk liquor before driving, a 2-percentage point increase from two years prior, the survey showed.

It also showed that an unnerving percentage of 10th graders, considering they had just received their driver’s licenses, also drove under the haze of liquor and marijuana.

Nearly 10 percent of those sophomores said they had smoked marijuana before driving, and 5 percent acknowledged drinking alcohol, the latest survey showed.

For its own safety, the public needs to know those numbers, Health Department spokeswoman Sara Sparkman said Thursday. “People need to be aware who’s on the road,” driving with both inadequate experience and sobriety.

Teens’ parents also should be concerned that 37 percent of Tazewell’s seniors believe their parents would never catch them drinking and driving, Sparkman said.

“That’s what we want our (county) parents to know, so they can talk to their kids” about the dangers involved, she said. “They still have the greatest impact” in teaching that lesson.

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