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By Marci Mednick
Parents and guardians have been protecting their child from dangers on and off the road for many years and then they suddenly find themselves handing over the keys to the family car during the teen years.
While a teen may look and sound like an adult once they get their license, they still lack real-world experience when it comes to operating a vehicle. Experts agree that it takes at least five years for teens to reach the skill level of most other drivers.
According to the Safe States Alliance, motor vehicle crashes currently rank as a leading cause of injury among individuals under 24 years of age. In fact, novice teen drivers are twice as likely as adult drivers to be involved in a fatal crash.
Teen drivers are involved in car crashes not because they are uninformed about the rules of the road. Rather, studies show that teens are involved in crashes because of inexperience and risk-taking, especially when driving with a teenage peer.
In a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study, teens were two and a half times more likely to engage in risky behavior while driving with a teen peer rather than alone. The likelihood increases to three times when traveling with multiple teen passengers.
While new drivers might be more vulnerable to peer pressure, driving fast, and distraction from their mobile phones, the greatest risk they face is impaired driving or riding with an impaired driver.
Impaired driving is operating a car under the influence of alcohol or any other type of drug, including prescription medications. In the U.S., a person is killed every 50 minutes by an impaired driver.
Alcohol and marijuana aren’t just illegal for teens to consume; use can be deadly if they drink or use and drive. Impaired driving is entirely preventable when teens understand its dangers. It takes all of us—parents, schools, and the community—to make sure adolescents are equipped with the facts about impaired driving.
The legal limit for adults over the age of 21 is a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08%, but impairment begins long before one reaches the 0.08 level. Research shows that some of the skills needed to drive safely begin to deteriorate even at the 0.02% blood-alcohol level. Alcohol reduces brain function by impairing thinking, reasoning, and muscle coordination—all essential to operating a vehicle safely.
Make sure your child knows the dangers of riding with an impaired driver. Before going out for the evening, discuss the options they have to get home safely. Let them know their safety is your primary concern.
Usually, it isn’t the impaired driver who is injured; it is everybody around them. The knowledge that your teen could injure or kill another person is alarming enough, but there are serious consequences for driving while impaired. California has the strictest DUI laws in the country. There are large fines, jail time, and a loss of license for anyone under the age of 21 with a BAC of 0.01% or more.
Despite feeling like your teen may listen to their friends more than you, numerous studies have shown that parents make a huge difference in their teens’ decisions when it comes to alcohol and other drug use.
It’s important to talk to your teen about your expectations when it comes to alcohol and other drugs, and that safety comes first. Let them know you won’t be angry if they find themselves in a situation where they don’t feel safe and that you will be there when they need help.
Remember: You have more influence on your teen’s driving than you realize. Teach them well and stay involved—whether they’re a driver or a passenger—to ensure their safety and your peace of mind.
Marci Mednick, community development specialist, leads Providence Mission Hospital’s youth substance use prevention initiative, including raisinghealthyteens.org and strengthinnumbersoc.org, which bring evidence-informed strategies to South Orange County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Providence Mission Hospital is a member of the Wellness & Prevention Coalition.