Handing Over the Keys: Teens and Impaired Driving

Teens and Impaired DrivingWhile this may have been especially relevant to post before New Year’s Day, when accidents involving an impaired driver are at their highest rates of the year, we were on a short blog hiatus during the holidays, and – let’s be real – drunk driving never stops being relevant.

We all know that drunk driving is incredibly dangerous; that message has become increasingly clear over the last few decades. The numbers are alarming: drunk driving is involved in the death of about 30 people every day in the United States and about 17 percent of traffic deaths of children under the age of 14 involve a driver that was impaired by alcohol. And motor vehicle accidents continue to be the leading cause of death amongst young people, ages 16-25.

And while long winters can sometimes make me feel as if change is hard to come by, I’m excited to usher in 2016 with some good news. A recent study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that there has been a significant decline in driving under the influence of alcohol as well as driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana combined. In comparing survey results from 2014 to 2002, the authors found that the prevalence of driving under the influence decreased from 16.2% to 6.6% among 16 to 20-year-olds and from 29.1% to 18.1% among 21 to 25-year-olds.

Incredible news, right? What made the difference? Given that the way that the survey itself was designed, we cannot be exactly sure, though it has been suggested that a number of public safety interventions may have played a role (such as prohibition of driving with any alcohol level higher than 0 for anyone less than 21, targeted mass media and education campaigns, sobriety checkpoints with roadside breathalyzer testing for alcohol, and graduated licensing programs). Graduated licensing systems, and particularly nighttime driving restrictions for new drivers, have actually been associated with lowering rates of fatal crashes involving a drinking driver. And all 50 states (as well as Washington, D.C.,) currently have graduated licensing systems (though not all have nighttime driving restrictions).

There is, of course, more work to do. While these most recent numbers are promising, the picture of how frequently marijuana is used by young drivers is a little less clear. There’s still a lot of debate about marijuana’s effect on driving, but studies have shown that the risk of being involved in an car accident doubles after marijuana use. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a roadside survey of more than 9,000 drivers across the country in 2013 and 2014, having collected similar data in the past. They asked about drug and alcohol use and tested for blood alcohol levels and illicit drugs. While this study confirmed a decline in drunk driving, it showed an increase in drivers that had used marijuana, from 8.6 percent in 2007 to 12.6 percent in 2013/2014.

Turning To Our Teens

To summarize, there’s data out there that teens are making some great choices, though there is still work to be done to make sure that teens and young adults expect not to be or travel with a driver impaired by drugs or alcohol. If you are a parent or guardian thinking about how to bring this message home, here are a few tips about how to help your teen or young adult plan ahead to keep themselves safe when it comes to driving and substance use:

  • Be a role model. As with so many things, teens recognize when there is a difference between what we say and what we do. Hold yourself to a standard of responsible driving when it comes to alcohol use and talk openly with your teen about how you plan ahead to keep yourself safe.
  • Start the conversation early. It might not occur to many to start the conversation before a teenager or young adult has their driver’s license, but do not forget that their friends may start driving before they do. Talk about what safe driving means (no drugs or alcohol) and how to problem-solve if a teen has to make a decision about getting in a car with an impaired driver.
  • Offer a way out. Let your teen know early and often that they can call for a safe ride home (via you or paid cab fare) at any time with no questions asked. This does not mean that there are no conversations or consequences for the decisions that led to that point, but highlights that your priority is getting them home safely… and that the conversation about other decisions can wait until the next day.

Happy New Year and safe driving!