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Hocus Pocus

Knowledge of driving dangers vanishes among teens

Poof, just like that, hard-learned lessons of driving dangers disappear as teens take the wheel.

While efforts to inform young people of the risks associated with impaired and distracted driving seem to be working, they don’t necessarily translate into safe behaviors, at least as most adults define them.

For example, according to new teen driving data from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, while the vast majority (86 percent) of teens consider driving under the influence of alcohol to be extremely or very distracting, a whopping 17 percent still do.

It seems that part of the problem comes down to how one defines “under the influence.” One in 10 teens who say they never drive under the influence of alcohol actually acknowledge that they occasionally drive after drinking an alcoholic beverage. Perhaps more disturbing is that one-third of teens who admit to driving under the influence say they often drive after having one drink and 40 percent admit to sometimes driving after consuming more than three drinks.

The result? One-quarter of young driver fatal crashes involve drinking and driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

While SADD steers clear of promoting “designated drivers” for minors, believing they only encourage underage drinking, many adults have long found solace in such practices by young people. Indeed, more than half (58 percent) of parents encourage their teens to use designated drivers to avoid danger. Only now, however, is research making clear that what mom or dad may mean by a designated driver likely differs from teenage reality on the road: Twenty-one percent of teens say their designated drivers are peers who are allowed some level of alcohol or other drug use, as long as they aren’t “too impaired” to drive. With zero-tolerance blood alcohol levels for youth in many states, even a little is too much.

More concerning is the fact that 4 percent of teens describe their designated driver as the “most sober”—or “least wasted” as one teen stated—of the group.

Reality gap 2.0.

When it comes to distracted driving, which according to the U.S. Department of Transportation resulted in 3,300 deaths in 2012, nearly all teens (96 percent) say they understand that using a cell phone while driving, for either talking or texting, is at least somewhat distracting. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the vast majority of them (86 percent) are doing just that!

In addition:

• Nearly half (47 percent) of teens who say they never text while driving still admit to texting at red lights or stop signs; and

• 68 percent of teens say they read or reply to text messages while driving.

The problem?

According to David Melton, driving safety expert with Liberty Mutual Insurance and managing director of global safety, “It’s critical for teens to understand that any time you use your cell phone behind the wheel, moving or not, your attention is diverted, putting yourself, your passengers and others on the road at risk.”

The solution?

SADD and Liberty Mutual point to the efficacy of family communication in keeping kids safe. Each offers a social contract (the Contract for Life and the Parent/Teen Driving Contract, respectively) as a tool to open and maintain dialogue about driving dangers.

Other approaches worth considering are increasing parental supervision of novice drivers, something being pursued by the AAA Foundation, a not-for-profit, publicly supported charitable research and education organization dedicated to saving lives by preventing traffic crashes and reducing injuries when crashes occur. It is developing an evidence-based “parent coaching” program to help realize those goals.

And, researchers at Washington State University are focused on curbing texting and driving through public service announcements that evoke fear of death in graphic terms.

Given that teenagers account for more car crashes in the United States than any other group, there is clearly room for many tools in our safe-driving tool kit.

SADD president and CEO Penny Wells, says, “With teens adopting different definitions of what it means to drive under the influence, appoint designated drivers and use cell phones while driving, it is critical that peers, parents and other caring adults, such as teachers and coaches, speak clearly about the relationship between such practices and youth automobile crash deaths.”

Because, just like that, a young life can be lost. Hocus Pocus.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an 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. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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