By Chad Frey

Newton Kansan

Underage drinking is illegal, and it can set up another illegal activity — driving under the influence. That can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 25 percent of fatalities of male drivers between 15 and 20 involved a driver who had been drinking.

"The challenges are huge and they are growing weekly. This isn't just drinking — it's impairment. The challenge is growing weekly," said Steve Halbett of the Kansas Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Safety and Technology.

According to the Kansas Department of Transportation, underage drivers make up less than 9 percent of the driving population but they are a factor in almost 17 percent of alcohol-related crashes. In Kansas in 2010, impaired underage drivers were implicated in crashes that killed 19 and injured 325.

One resource for preventing the consequences of underage drinking is a toll free phone line maintained by KDOT — 1-866-MUST-B-21.  Things to report include parties involving underage drinkers, ideally before they start; anyone purchasing alcohol for someone underage; anyone giving or selling alcohol to someone underage; suspected underage drinking anywhere, including at house parties.

During each call, a dispatcher determines the nature of the suspected violation and transfers callers to the appropriate law enforcement agency.

First launched in 2006, the tip line is operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week and allows callers to talk to either Kansas or Nebraska dispatchers.

"Nebraska liked our number so much, they decided to use it," Halbett said.

The program includes a website, http://www.1866mustb21.com, with resources including fact sheets.

The program has gone through growing pains — a lack of promotion, increased charges from telephone providers, changes to administration and loss of initial funding among them. Initially administration and promotion of the line was the duty of a contracted agency — that has changed. Maintaining a website, paying the phone bills, promotion and administration of the program is now done solely by the Kansas Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Safety and Technology.

"We feel like if we have 20 calls a month, or 200, it can save a life. It is important," Halbett said. "When you have drunk teens on a highway, it is serious stuff."

The Kansas Highway Patrol provides dispatch services. Anyone can call the number, and calls may be kept anonymous.