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I lost my son to a drunken driver. Could I have stopped him from getting in that car?

A police car at night.

A police car at night. Credit: iStock

What parent hasn’t told her son or daughter, "No more sweets until you clean your room," only to grab some M&Ms to munch on herself, knowing good and well the sink is full of dirty dishes with her name on them?

But what about telling her son or daughter to not get in a vehicle driven by a driver who has been drinking — when she herself has ridden with a driver who had a drink or two?

"Do as I say, not as I do" isn’t a strong parenting tool. I know, because this didn’t work with my son Cole. When Cole was 19, just one year after his high school graduation, he was killed while riding with a drunken driver.

Call it mother’s intuition, but I knew the moment Cole was born that he would be a handful. He was my little stinker, always keeping me on my toes and making me laugh. He was incredibly adorable. His big blue eyes could get him out of almost anything.

As Cole grew, he developed a sense of humor and a reputation as the class clown and neighborhood daredevil. He was also kind and considerate. People couldn’t help but gravitate toward Cole.

Cole had his struggles. He began experimenting with alcohol and drugs around 13, and we had our ups and downs throughout high school. But the year after graduation, Cole was looking into college classes and working with a construction company part time. I could tell he was really trying to get on the right path.

On June 4, 2011, Cole, who was still living at home, shouted out that he was going down the road to visit a friend and would be right back. I told him I loved him, and he yelled it back before driving two miles for the visit.

At the friend’s house, a group of older guys was sitting outside drinking. Even though Cole had not been drinking, he made the choice to get into a truck with a man who had been. Intoxicated, the driver drove more than 100 mph before careering into a guardrail, hitting the gas tank on the driver’s side. The truck went up in flames.

The driver died at the scene, but Cole managed to pull himself out of the truck. When I arrived at the hospital I saw my handsome boy with burns covering 95 percent of his body. Cole looked at me and said, "I’m sorry; it was stupid."

He knew my heart was broken. "Momma, I’m a burnt chicken," he joked in typical Cole fashion, trying to make me laugh. His nickname in high school was "Chicken Legs."

My sweet boy was in pain, and was put in a medically induced coma. He was then life-flighted to a larger hospital. And this was where Cole took his last breath. This is where I said "I love you" to Cole for the last time.

Every day I miss Cole’s jokes. I miss the life and laughter he had in those big beautiful blue eyes. I miss him calling me "Momma."

And if there is a parent out there who thinks this won’t happen to them, I am living proof to the contrary. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2014 alone, 354 15-to 20-year-olds were killed while riding with a drunken driver.

Before Cole’s crash, there were special occasions, holiday parties or get-togethers where I would ride with someone who had one drink, or maybe two. I thought, "It’s just one drink, they aren’t impaired."

I talked to Cole about not drinking until he was 21, and never riding with a drunken driver. But

I can’t help but think it’s possible that Cole thought the same way I did. Or maybe he thought that riding with a drunken driver wasn’t a big deal.

I know so much more now than I knew then.

A new Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Nationwide survey found that 80 percent of parents surveyed had talked with their children about the dangers of riding with a drunken driver. But one in four of those parents admitted to riding with a drunken driver themselves in the past year.

Recently I learned about a separate study released by the Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Biobehavior Health. It surveyed more than 500 college students on their attitudes toward riding with a drunken driver, perceived parental disapproval, frequency of peers riding with a drunken driver and more. The part that hit me the hardest: How frequently parents rode with a drinking driver significantly affected a student’s willingness to ride with a drinking driver.

Robert Turrisi, a doctor who co-wrote the study and MADD’s "Power of Parents" handbooks, says it’s important for parents to talk with their children about not riding with a drinking driver, and modeling positive behavior can greatly affect their children’s willingness to ride with a drinking driver.

I know Cole’s crash was not my fault. What I’ll never know is if talking with Cole earlier, or modeling safe passenger behavior, would have prevented Cole from getting into the truck. But you can believe I would give anything to go back in time and try.

Kathy Kilgore Beeler is a volunteer with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).