911 Immunity Laws Needed in the Golden State

Caroline Cook

Studies show teen reluctance to call 911 in emergencies

A recent Los Angeles Times article written by Orinda journalist and mother, Maura Dolan, examined the town’s emotional state in the wake of the tragic death of Miramonte High School student Joe Loudon. Seven months after Joe’s death, our community remains mired in the tension between following the letter of the law and preventing fatal outcomes for teenagers who drink.

In all 50 states, only persons age 21 and over can legally possess and consume alcohol. In California, underage drinkers can be prosecuted for violating the law, even if they call for medical assistance for an intoxicated or unconscious friend.  Press releases from the Orinda Police Department, in addition to local bloggers, have suggested that partygoers’ failure to call 911 contributed to Joe Loudon’s death.

Colorado, New Jersey, and Texas have addressed incidents of underage drinking deaths by enacting “911 immunity laws.”  This legislation encourages young people to call for help in the event of an alcohol medical emergency by providing those who call for help or need such help with immunity from criminal charges otherwise triggered by violation of underage drinking laws. In essence, these laws grant immunity from prosecution, in certain situations, to underage persons calling 911 in an emergency to help an inebriated friend.  The laws apply exclusively to the person(s) calling 911 and the drunken teen; not any other underage partygoers consuming or possessing alcohol.

It is high time for the state of California to follow suit and adopt 911 immunity laws. Because nationally recognized data shows that underage drinking is widespread, teens disregard educational efforts about alcohol’s perilous effects, and underage offenders fail to call for help. In a 1997 College Alcohol Survey conducted by Harvard University’s School of Public Health, data indicated that 30,000 students across the country were treated for alcohol overdoses during the previous year.

The National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in a comprehensive study in 2005 that despite the fact that it is illegal for all high school and most college students to purchase alcohol, 63% of 10th graders, 75% of 12th graders and 87% of college students have consumed alcohol.

In Northern California, the 2007 California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) reported widespread alcohol consumption by Acalanes Union High School District students.   38% of 9th graders and 68% of 11th graders admitted consuming alcohol at least once, with 22% and 43% respectively having consumed alcohol within the past 30 days.

Southern California data confirms statewide teen alcohol consumption trends.  Los Angeles County CHKS showed that 48% of 9th graders and 63% of 11th graders had imbibed; 28% and 36% respectively within the past 30 days.

Heavy consumption and binge drinking are more common practices for people between the ages of 12 and 20.  “Binge drinking” is defined by the CHKS as the consumption of five or more drinks in a single setting or occasion. This form of drinking is particularly dangerous and may result in unconsciousness, aspiration of vomit, asphyxia, alcohol poisoning, and other medical emergencies leading to death.

Educational efforts alone have proved inadequate in reducing teen binge drinking. Professor Rodney Skager of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, reports that the prevalence of alcohol consumption by teens today suggests that the strategy of “inoculating” children against experimentation, and later use as teenagers, has failed.

Skager’s study noted that preteen drug education delivers many negative messages about alcohol, which evolve into exaggerations or myths once teenagers actually acquire first-hand knowledge based on their own trials of substance use, or observation of peers. These direct experiences foster doubts in a teenager’s mind about information taught to them as children, and consequently further alcohol experimentation.

Teens place less value on warning signs of alcohol overdose due to the fact that they are consistently exaggerated. Therefore, teens fail to recognize the immediate and critical need to call for help, and lives are lost.

Cornell University’s 2002 Medical Amnesty Protocol (MAP) has proven that calls for emergency assistance rise when amnesty is offered to students calling for help in alcohol related emergencies. Adopting a three part harm reduction approach to acute alcohol poisoning, students were first taught to identify signs of alcohol poisoning, and safety measures to take in an alcohol related medical emergency.

Next, to encourage students to call for help when needed, a university-wide amnesty policy was implemented which protected 911 callers on behalf of a person experiencing an alcohol related emergency from charges of underage alcohol possession or provision.

Finally, substance abuse treatment counselors monitored the individuals involved, addressing health and alcohol abuse concerns. In addition to a rising rate of 911 calls of alcohol related emergencies, the number of students involved in alcohol counseling doubled during the study.

California must develop a comprehensive approach to prevent underage, alcohol-related deaths. Education alone does not change behavior.  It is analogous to the ineffectiveness of preaching abstinence as a means of preventing teen pregnancy. In addition, the threat of punishment has never prevented teen alcohol use.

Tackling the complicated problem of underage drinking with a public health approach will at a minimum, ensure that the problem is being dealt with on all fronts.  The guarantee of legal immunity for an intoxicated minor in an alcohol medical emergency has proved to be a stronger motivator for teens to call 911 in such a situation.      Since Loudon’s death, families, friends, and students in South Pasadena and Gilroy, California, have experienced the losses of 17-year-old Aydin Salek and 15-year-old Sarah Botill in apparent alcohol related deaths. These deaths highlight that time for 911 immunity legislation is running out and action must be taken.

When Loudon died, our community lost a truly amazing student, athlete, volunteer and role model.  Talk doesn’t change behavior. Talk is ignored. But hopefully, by enacting 911 immunity laws in California, communities will remain intact, and you, yourself, might save a life.

Excerpts from this article were previously published in the Los Angeles Times.