Underage drinking — it sometimes seems like the stuff of many people’s “good old days” lore — but it isn’t harmless fun or a joking matter. It’s a serious problem that in the worst of circumstances can lead to deaths and lives changed in an instant.

Over the past five years, 196 people have been killed and 3,405 people have been injured in alcohol-related crashes involving teen drivers in Kansas, according to Kansas Department of Transportation figures cited in a recent report by the Kansas Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free committee, coordinated by Kansas Family Partnership.

That’s why we’ve got to remain tough when it comes to enforcing laws to prevent minors from obtaining and consuming alcohol. While it’s true that young people intent on drinking often will find ways to get their hands on alcohol one way or another, we must make it as difficult as possible. Too many bad decisions are made under the influence.

The case currently in the news is sad for all involved, with one young woman having lost her life, a young man now a paraplegic and another young man severely injured. Hunter Hillmer, 19, was convicted last week of reckless second-degree murder in the death of 15-year-old Madison “Maddie” Naill, who was a passenger in his car March 19 when it crashed into a utility pole and a tree on S.E. 45th Street. Hillmer is now paraplegic, and another passenger, Blake Hanvy, 20, was severely injured. Hillmer also was convicted of aggravated battery (great bodily harm) in the injury of Hanvy, driving while under the influence of alcohol, possession or consumption of alcohol by a minor, and reckless driving.

Hillmer testified during his trial that he had purchased a bottle of whisky at Murphy’s liquor store, 400 S.W. 29th, the weekend before March 19. A surveillance video from the store March 19 showed Hillmer and another man buying alcohol without showing identification. Two clerks from Murphy’s liquor store have been charged with one count each of furnishing alcohol to a minor, which is a class B misdemeanor with a minimum $200 fine.

While ultimate responsibility for the choice to drink and drive that night rests solely with Hillmer, state law is clear that sales to minors are illegal. In recent weeks, Safe Streets, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control division and the Topeka Police Department have conducted a number of controlled buys at local businesses, citing establishments and those conducting the transactions where alcohol is furnished to minors. These operations aren’t simply to catch people breaking the law but to remind those that may have become lax about the consequences. Retailers must take seriously the law banning sales to minors and the responsibility to hire and train employees in this regard, as well.

When it comes to carding, the state has made it easy to identify minors without even having to do any math. Kansas drivers’ licenses for those younger than 21 are oriented vertically, rather than horizontally.

Parents and older friends also must realize the prohibitions on “social hosting.” Kansas’ “social hosting” law, adopted in 2004, imposes penalties on hosts who permit underage drinking on their property. The minimum fine is $1,000.

Working together, we all can do our part to reduce access and promote responsible decision-making.

— The Topeka Capital-Journal