Minnesota among worst in nation for drinking and driving

BSU student event
Bemidji State University students gather in the John Glas Fieldhouse for an end-of-year celebration. Surveys show drinking and driving among students has dropped over the past few years. But health educators at BSU says they're up against a culture of drinking in the Midwest. A recent national study placed Minnesota third in the nation for adults who drive under the influence of alcohol.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

When it comes to alcohol, college students are notorious for risky behaviors like binge drinking and driving under the influence.

Students on the Bemidji State University campus celebrated spring with a non-alcoholic event called Sun Splash, BSU's end-of-year picnic.

But according to David, who's a criminal justice student at BSU and didn't want to share his last name for this story, there are lots of students who get behind the wheel after drinking.

"If you want free entertainment just watch all those kids come back at 2 o'clock in the morning Sunday after they've been drinking their heads off," David said. "There was one time my roommate came back in and he was ready to vomit on my carpet. He drove his girlfriend home from a party after he had 14 beers."

Jay Passa
Jay Passa coordinates Bemidji State University's drug and alcohol education efforts. Passa says the university is collaborating more with the surrounding community and outside agencies to stop drinking and driving.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Health educators at BSU say they have their work cut out for them. Health Education coordinator Jay Passa, works with BSU's Student Center for Health and Counseling. Passa says college students are in an age group known for taking risks and they're a difficult group to reach with alcohol education.

"Seems like no matter what we throw at the students, it's bouncing off, it's not sticking," said Passa.

BSU is taking a new approach that's showing some promise. It means more cooperation with the surrounding community and local businesses.

Drinking establishments have cut back on advertising drink specials geared toward students. BSU is working more closely with local health coalitions. More students are being trained as peer educators who provide counseling to classmates informally and in the classroom.

Passa says in 2002, a survey showed 43 percent of BSU students admitted to drinking and driving over the past year. Last year's survey showed that number dropped to 22 percent. Passa says that's encouraging, but he knows there's still a big problem.

"We can't do it through law enforcement. We can't prosecute our way out of these things. It's got to be done by a shift in the thinking of all the people."

"We're already in a location where we're at risk," Passa said. "The majority of students that come to our campus are from the Midwest, and what we're trying to do is change a culture that's bigger than we are."

The alcohol problem isn't all about college kids.

A new federal study shows that in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin, about one out of four licensed drivers admitted drinking and driving over the past year. That's a higher rate than anywhere else in the country.

In 2006, nearly 42,000 DWIs were issued on Minnesota roads. More than a half-a-million Minnesota residents now have a DWI on their driving record.

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp says despite public education efforts, DWI rates are higher today than they were 10 years ago. Last year, Beltrami County made the list of Minnesota's 15 deadliest counties for impaired driving.

Hodapp figures that on any given day, 75 percent of his jail inmates are there for crimes connected to alcohol, primarily DWI. Hodapp says his officers have cracked down on drunk driving, but that's only part of the solution.

"We can't do it through the courts, we can't do it through law enforcement, we can't prosecute our way out of these things," said Hodapp. "It's got to be done by a shift in the thinking of all the people, you know, the collective thinking."

Jill Naylor Yarger
Jill Naylor-Yarger says she's not surprised by the recent study that shows Minnesota is in the top three states for drinking and driving. Naylor-Yarger heads the Drug Free Coalition of North Central Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Researchers have been trying to change public behavior for years. Many agree traditional methods aren't working.

Professor of sociology H. Wesley Perkins, of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, says his studies have shown people who drink and drive believe it's normal behavior, that everybody does it.

"They think they're just like everybody else," said Perkins. "They think most people their age are drinking at those levels and driving, which is not true. We've got what I call this massive misperception that becomes a reign of error."

Perkins says challenging those misperceptions may be key to changing behavior.

He conducted studies in several Montana counties, where they launched aggressive social marketing campaigns that focused on busting the myth that everyone drinks and drives. Perkins says the impaired driving rate was reduced by 14 percent in those counties.

There's a local group, the Drug Free Coalition of North Central Minnesota, that will soon launch a campaign using a similar theme. Director Jill Naylor-Yarger says changing the culture of drinking will take generations.

"There are no quick fixes, but people have to begin to just wake up and say, 'You know what? This is a serious problem,'" said Naylor-Yarger. "Now is the time. In our communities, I think we've reached that tipping point with alcohol abuse."

The Drug Free Coalition of North Central Minnesota kicks off its social marketing campaign next month.

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