High Stakes for Today's Teens

Studies show significant use of illicit drugs and alcohol among
teenagers, which can have deadly effects on driving.

Thanks to 20-plus years of successful education and awareness campaigns, the consequences of driving drunk have become a part of our country's safety vernacular–we know the dangers, and we've made great strides to reduce DUI rates and deaths across the country. Yet, the subject of drugged driving has received fairly limited attention.

Unfortunately, too many Americans are unaware of the dangers, and this is especially true for teens and young adults who have the least experience–both in life and behind the wheel. Factor in the use of substances that can impair motor skills, and the combination becomes a recipe for disaster.

Drugged driving is lethal at any age, but especially so for teens ages 15 to 19, for whom motor vehicle crashes are already the leading cause of death. According to a 2014 study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, almost half–49.1 percent–of high school seniors in the class of 2014 indicated they have tried an illicit drug, and nearly one in four–23.7 percent–reported having used an illicit drug in the last 30 days.

Nearly half of high school seniors in 2014 indicated they had tried an illicit drug, according to a University of Michigan study. As more states enact laws or consider legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational use, its availability to teens is likely to increase, and many parents underestimate the potency of today's cannabis (estimated to have tripled in the past two decades). After alcohol and tobacco, it's the most widely used substance among high school students. Indeed, 44 percent of seniors report having used marijuana at least once in their lifetime.

And marijuana is just one facet of the drugged driving problem. It holds company with a prominent list of substances that include over-the-counter and prescription medications. After marijuana, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused by teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with about 18 percent of high school students taking drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine, Ritalin, or Xanax without a doctor's prescription one or more times during their lives.

Then there are drivers who have both drugs and alcohol or more than one drug in their system, creating another set of dangerous issues. Current national estimates of teenage drinking and driving range from 10 percent to 12.5 percent, and a national study found that 21 percent of high school students report riding with an impaired driver in the past month. The addition of teens' feelings of invincibility, misplaced overconfidence, negative media messaging, and exposure to social pressure from peers creates a potent cocktail for tragedy when mixed with inexperience behind the wheel.

A national study found that one in five high school students reported riding with an impaired driver in the past month. “Teens are just starting to drive and don't have the experience that adults do,” said Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Even when it comes to over-the-counter stuff, they're not going to be thinking about the side effects. Any time you get the chance to tell teenagers about the dangers of impaired driving, you should take it. Getting the message to them early is so important.”

Up next in our series on impaired driving: Doctor’s Orders–What you need to know about prescription and over-the-counter drugs and driving.As National Teen Driver Safety Week approaches from Oct. 19–25, AAA and federal agencies realize that the key is emphasizing the dangers of impairment before teens get behind the wheel. AAA recently began raising awareness and understanding among its members and the general public, and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has initiated three research projects to help understand potential safety implications. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy also has made preventing drug use by teen drivers a priority, creating a toolkit that acts as a blueprint for how to start the conversation in individual communities about these issues.

Putting the brakes on drugged driving requires action by all of us. It will require a comprehensive approach–from frank dinner table discussions at home to more uniform impaired driving laws across states. We have our work cut out for us, but when it comes to impaired driving, none of us is above the influence.

Rhonda Shah is a AAA Traffic Safety Advocacy Project Manager.

September/October 2015 Issue


To be safe drivers, teens should steer clear of distractions and other risky behaviors

With National Teen Driver Safety Week approaching on Oct. 19–25, AAA reminds teens and parents that impaired driving because of drugs and alcohol is just one of the many risks that novice drivers should avoid to stay safe behind the wheel.

Driving is dangerous, and especially so for teen drivers. Because of a lack of experience and knowledge combined with risk-taking behaviors, teenage drivers are involved in more accidents per mile than drivers of any other age group. Indeed, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States.

And teens aren't just a threat to themselves but to everyone on the road. According to a recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study, about two-thirds of people injured or killed in a crash involving a teen driver are people other than the teen, including the teen's passengers, other drivers and their passengers, and pedestrians. On U.S. roads in 2013, more than 371,000 people were injured and almost 3,000 were killed in crashes involving teen drivers.

“Teen crash rates are higher than any other age group, and this data confirms that the impact of their crashes extends well beyond the teen who is behind the wheel,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the foundation.

The good news is that many teen crashes are preventable, noted Mike Right, vice president of Public Affairs for AAA. Among the issues that parents need to focus on with their teens are driving practice, distractions, teen passengers, and night driving.

Parents play the biggest role in keeping their teens safe behind the wheel. Risky driving, traffic violations, and crashes are lower among teens whose parents provide plenty–at least 50 hours–of supervised driving practice in a wide variety of situations–including in bad weather, heavy traffic, and unfamiliar roads–and then set limits on their driving privileges.

“As they drive, parents need to remember to be good role models,” Right said. “Parents teach more than they know, and some of it isn't good. Research shows that parents who crash more often and get more traffic tickets tend to have teens who behave the same way.”

One leading cause of crashes among teens is distraction. A recent AAA Foundation study revealed that distraction–especially using a cell phone and interacting with passengers–was a factor in nearly six out of 10 teen crashes.

The presence of teen passengers is particularly risky for novice drivers. Another AAA study found that compared to driving alone, the risk of death in a traffic crash for 16- and 17-year-old drivers increases by 44 percent when carrying one passenger younger than 21, doubles with two, and quadruples with three or more.

In addition, a teen driver's chance of being involved in a deadly crash doubles at night. AAA recommends newly licensed drivers not drive after 9 p.m. unless accompanied by a responsible adult.

To make sure teens understand the importance of the restrictions on night driving, passengers, and distractions, many families find written agreements help set expectations. AAA offers a parent-teen driving agreement at TeenDriving.AAA.com. The teen driver safety Web site offers a variety of valuable tools for parents and teens to help navigate the learning-to-drive process.


Parents play a key role in making sure their teens are safe drivers through their supervised practice, role modeling, and by setting limits for their teens.

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