- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

She was a young, white female dressed in a skimpy top and cutoff jeans, and she was being carried off, feet dragging and curly head bobbing, by two male companions. At first glance, we thought she was the victim of the sweltering steam bath that was broiling all the brave souls who ventured to the bucolic setting of The Plains to attend the annual Virginia Wine Festival last weekend.

As we moved aside, we could see that the attractive girl, apparently in her very early 20s, was "wasted," as another bystander stated. While clearly everyone was having a grand 'ol "tasting" time with the savory samplings, most connoisseurs seemed to consume within moderation.

Undoubtedly, it takes the young a while to understand the errors of their weekend excesses.

Concededly, we did see a few mature folks leaning against their cars by evening's end, presumably not wanting to pass through the police sobriety checkpoint set up at the only exit. To their credit, the organizers of the 37th festival took no chances with underage drinkers. They checked everyone's identification even the driver's license of this silver fox before they were allowed to purchase a ticket for entrance into the gallery of glorious offerings of Virginia's harvested grapevines.

Equally important, the organizers gave a discount to designated drivers who were treated to free nonalcoholic beverages to cool down in the scorching sun.

Vendors were assisted by color-coded wrist bands distributed only to those born after 8/18/81. When someone shouted that my 30-something son looked too young to partake from his wine glass, he simply held up his yellow band.

Would that more establishments and event planners who serve alcohol would be so diligent in thwarting underage drinkers.

Perhaps the young life of U.S. Park Police Officer Hakim Azim Farthing would have been spared had someone checked the age and identification of the young woman who plowed through a police barricade and killed him on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway earlier this month.

Jovada Welch, 20, of Silver Spring faces charges of driving under the influence and involuntary manslaughter in the 28-year-old officer's death. A federal judge released the woman, too young to legally drink, from jail Thursday and sent her to a halfway house in the District.

Who hasn't seen the news footage taken in the wee hours of the morning showing this young woman's belligerence before her arrest at the accident scene near New York Avenue NE and the Parkway on Aug. 10. Her blood-alcohol level was 0.10, according to police, which is definitely illegal, according to Sgt. Scott Fear, a Park Police spokesman.

Officials say Miss Welch drove her Pontiac Sunfire through flares and orange cones before striking Officer Farthing who had stopped to assist in another fatal accident that occurred two hours earlier. In that crash, the driver lost control of his car, went off the southbound parkway ramp near Cheverly. The car flipped over, burst into flames and burned the driver beyond recognition.

No one knows where Miss Welch had been drinking or if she used false identification to obtain alcoholic beverages.

Undoubtedly, the federal grand jury investigating this tragic case will make that determination. But the uniform age for serving or selling alcohol is 21. Whoever sold or provided her with the drinks is also at fault.

In the District, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has stepped up enforcement efforts to force drinking establishments into compliance with liquor-license laws and city codes that make it easier to detect underage drinkers. That's a good thing. Not a moment too soon, city establishments also are being ordered to use devices that allow inspectors to check identification and ages of bar patrons. Some have argued for lowering the legal drinking age, but statistics still indicate that younger drivers are involved in more accidents, many of them fatal, where alcohol was a factor.

Last year, a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that underage drinking alone costs the nation $52 billion annually. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which supports keeping the minimum drinking age of 21, contends that underage drinking kills six times more youths than illicit drugs.

Here again are two promising young lives now ruined, one silenced forever. Both, it should be noted, served in the nation's armed forces. It is the responsibility of every adult to do their part to make sure that our young people don't have to be carted off to jail or the summertime scene because they've been able to get access to too much liquor.

On his police application, Officer Farthing wrote, "if given the opportunity, I will do your department proud. When my shift is over, I want that feeling of accomplishment."

In this young officer's honor we should all do better diligence, like the conscientious organizers of the Virginia Wine Festival, to stop drinking and driving, especially that of those who are underage.

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