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Impaired driving by millions of teens contributes to crash deaths

Prom and graduation season, the Fourth of July, and summer vacation give pause to parents of teenagers everywhere. Why? Because celebration paired with newfound freedom can trigger tragedy on our roads and highways.

Indeed, young people themselves report that these times of year are the most dangerous when it comes to driving. And alcohol and other drugs are primary reasons.

According to new research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, 23 percent of teens admit to driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or other drugs. With 13 million driving-aged teenagers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that means as many as 3 million impaired adolescents may be taking to the road.

Ironically, most teens (91 percent) consider themselves to be safe, cautious drivers. For example, nearly 40 percent claim that alcohol has no impact on their driving. Some even say it helps. And when it comes to operating a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana, a whopping 75 percent feel the same way.

Specifically, about one in four teens who have driven under the influence of marijuana (25 percent) or prescription drugs (23 percent), and about one in seven teens who report drinking and driving (14 percent), say they’re not distracted “at all” when mixing substance use with driving.

This cavalier attitude toward driving under the influence is made more somber in light of recent data from the Governors Highway Safety Association which found an alarming 19 percent increase in the number of teen driver deaths (ages 16 and 17) in the first half of 2012.

“The end of the school year and the summer months are exciting times for teens, but they are also the most dangerous,” says Dave Melton, a driving safety expert with Liberty Mutual Insurance and managing director of global safety. “A celebratory toast can quickly lead to serious consequences down the line. These new data illustrate that there is clearly a strong need to increase the level of education around risk. More importantly, it’s a flag for parents to make sure they talk to their kids regularly about the importance of safe driving behavior.”

His thoughts are echoed by SADD.

“Parents play an incredibly important role in communicating expectations to their teen drivers, enforcing consequences for ignoring family driving rules, and setting a good example behind the wheel,” says Penny Wells, SADD’s president and CEO, who points to Liberty Mutual’s Parent/Teen Driving Contract and SADD’s Contract for Life as effective conversation starters for parents and their teen drivers.

The good news is that more than 90 percent of teens say their school has a program or policy in place to deter illegal behavior, the most common being security guards or police. Additionally, the use of breathalyzers at school events is up nearly 25 percent. Yet, while school programs play an important role in keeping teens from engaging in dangerous activities, unsupervised celebrations make parent communication about safe driving more critical than ever.

If teens really believe there are no adverse consequences from driving impaired, we have our work cut out for us … lest many more families become shattered from injury and death.

Stephen Gray Wallace, associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor.

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