Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

Teenage Drunk Driving

Teenage drunk driving is an extremely dangerous problem that can lead to devastating consequences.

For teens, a driver’s license is a ticket to freedom. Instead of asking parents and friends for rides to far-flung places, they can simply slide behind the wheel, fire up the engine and motor to their destination without a care in the world. But driving can also be incredibly risky for teens. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that car crashes are the top cause of death for young people. No matter how much they prepare to drive, and no matter how well their parents drive, they could be at risk each time they get into a car.

Alcohol in the Body

Most people are aware that large amounts of alcohol lead to large driving problems. People who stagger from place to place, slurring their words and behaving inappropriately, pose a major threat to safety, and even strangers might step in when someone like this fishes out car keys from a coat pocket and prepares to drive home. But even small amounts of alcohol that don’t seem to produce an intense change in the way people behave can have a big impact on the way a person might drive.

The National Highway Safety Administration performed a detailed study on the impact of low levels of alcohol consumption, and they found that ingestion could impair:

  • Reaction times. A blood alcohol concentration (BAC) as low as 0.02 g/dl can cause a gap to form between an incident and a response. People might sail right over things they should avoid, simply because their bodies don’t respond in time.
  • Vision. At BAC levels of 0.03 g/dl, people find it difficult to see fine details, and they have less control over eye movements. Signs and signals might be hard to see, when alcohol is in play.
  • Alertness. At a BAC of 0.03 g/dl, drivers are less watchful of their surroundings, and they might creep up on other cars or hidden obstacles without reacting or noting the change.
  • Muscle control. A BAC of 0.04 g/dl can cause a lack of muscle control, making it difficult for drivers to manipulate pedals, steering devices and signals.

Alcohol can also make people feel intensely tired, and the mesmerizing view of the road slipping beneath the wheels of a car can seem capable of lulling a driver to dreamland. Blink rates might slow to such a degree that details are missed, as a driver has closed their eyes throughout much of the drive.

While these changes occur in both children and adults, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that teens are especially vulnerable to the impact alcohol can have on driving skills, as the risk for crashes are higher in young people at any BAC, when compared to adults with the same BAC. It’s possible that weight plays a role, as alcohol seems to pack a bigger wallop in people who are smaller, and the average teen is somewhat smaller than the average adult, but it’s also possible that the very nature of teen driving is to blame for the poor driving skills teens display when they’ve been drinking.

Developing Skills

In order to get that coveted driver’s license, the average teen must spend hours and hours behind the wheel in the company of a responsible adult. In California, for example, teens must spend 50 hours on their driving before they’re considered qualified to take a driver’s test. Operating a car is tricky, and teens just need to learn how it works before they can take on the task without supervision. However, teens continue to learn in the year or so that follows their driver’s test. They might take the car into situations that they never covered during their lessons, and they might be asked to drive in different types of weather or on different road conditions or when surrounded by different types of vehicles. Teens might also be learning how to drive different cars, so they have yet more lessons to learn.

Teens like this need to bring all of their attention to their driving experience, but they might mix in a few distractions as they drive, such as:
  • Loud music
  • Beeping cell phones
  • Chattering friends
  • Navigational devices
  • Radar detectors

Their attention can be fractured and frayed by all of these additional elements, making them less likely to make good decisions on the road. Adding in alcohol could be catastrophic as a result, since it’s likely that these teens are already showing poor driving skills.

A Deadly Mixture

Research suggests that teens are getting the message about the risks of drunk driving, and as a result, fewer teens are choosing to mix and match alcohol and motorized vehicles. The CDC suggests, for example, that the number of teens who did drink and drive dropped by 54 percent between 1991 and 2011. That’s good news, as it seems to suggest that teens are growing wiser about the steps they need to take in order to stay safe. Even so, there are some teens who continue to sip booze and drive, and those teens could be putting their lives at risk.

Even teens who think they’re showing good judgment regarding alcohol could make potentially dangerous decisions.

These teens might look for someone else to drive after a wild party, hoping to find the person in the room who seems relatively sober. This teen might still be impaired, however, as even low levels of alcohol can put a big dent in a driver’s ability to stay safe on the road. Teens who slip into a car driven by an intoxicated teen might still be in danger, and according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 59 percent of deaths attributed to car crashes in teens took place when another teenager was driving. Finding someone who is relatively sober could still lead to disaster, when alcohol is in that teen’s body.

Teens can also be remarkably passé about drunk driving, seeming to think that the action isn’t very dangerous and isn’t likely to lead to long-term harm. In Oregon, for example, a teen was driving under the influence and plowed his car into at least one other car. When the teen got home, he shared the stories of his adventure on Facebook, and he was promptly arrested. This teen seemed to think that his issue was amusing, not deadly, and that thought process might be common among teens.

Good Solutions

Some teens benefit from a firm talk with their parents about the use of alcohol. They might need reminders of the house rules regarding the use of intoxicating substances, and they might need to hear about the consequences parents would be willing to impose if they catch their youngsters dabbling in intoxicated driving. Loss of car privileges, groundings or worse might keep some kids from experimenting.

But there are some teens who drive drunk because they have a serious alcohol problem. These teens can’t just stop their drinking because their parents would like them to do so. Instead, they need the help of a formal treatment program for addiction, so they can find out how to deal with the urge for alcohol without submitting. If you think your son needs help like this, please download our parent’s packet for more information. Our comprehensive program blends education, innovation and compassion, allowing your son to turn over a new leaf and become the man you always knew he could be. We have operators standing by to take your calls too, if you’d like to discuss your case in detail.

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