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DUI Among College Students: The Elephant in the Room


(A similar version of this was originally Published February 8, 2011)

Author’s Note:  Below is a modified version of a brief blog post I wrote when I directed the “old Higher Ed. Center.”  Not much has changed since this was published and the new potential problems associated with “drugged driving” have likely made this issue more complex and pressing. We encourage you to comment on this issue below.

– John D. Clapp, Ph.D., Executive
 Director HECAOD


Virtually any research article or grant proposal I read or write related to college alcohol and other drug (AOD) abuse prevention has a statement similar to this front and center: “Each year, approximately an estimated 1,800 college students die as a result of alcohol use (Hingson et al., 2007).” What very few of these articles or proposals go on to say is that the bulk of those deaths are related to driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol. Nor do many of these publications note that DUI prevention targeting college students is woefully underfunded and seldom a priority for college-based prevention professionals. DUI is the elephant in the room that we collectively manage not to see.

The fact that the college AOD abuse prevention field does too little to address DUI is not surprising. DUI is a complex problem and traffic deaths often occur off campus. Unlike alcohol poisonings, overdoses of illicit drugs, or AOD-fueled violence, DUI deaths seldom create an immediate problem on campus. That is, DUI-related crashes are often the type of incident that, while viewed by college officials as being tragic, is considered as being not preventable or a problem outside the purview of a college or university.

Interestingly enough, there are good examples of college-based DUI prevention. We are currently entering into a partnership with RADD (Recording Artists, Actors and Athletes Against Drunk Driving) to develop more models and resources to address this problem. Further, the rapid uptake in services like Uber among students might transform the problem in a good way. We hope to energize the discussion concerning this serious public health concern. As you will read, there are indeed science-based approaches to preventing DUI among our students. Such approaches are inherently environmental and typically involve multiple stakeholders, including students, law enforcement, campus administration, and AOD prevention professionals. In general, “safe rides” programs, DUI checkpoints, media campaigns, and consistent enforcement of DUI laws have been shown to be effective in reducing DUI. Such efforts can be expensive, but that expense is easily offset by reductions in alcohol-related crashes and deaths.

We encourage you to join the discussion about preventing DUI and drugged driving among college students. We’d also like to hear from you about any other “elephants in the room.” What do you see as the most pressing issues for campus AOD and violence prevention? Your input is invaluable to us and helps us develop programming and products that meet your needs. Please feel free to contact us at hecaod@osu.edu, engage with us on social media (@HECAOD), or comment below.

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