Thousands of teenagers are killed in drunk-driving accidents every year. Here’s what you need to know to keep your teen out of harm’s way this holiday and all year round.
One night during a school break, fifteen-year-old Alisa Withers and a couple of friends went for a drive with two seventeen-year-old guys they knew. At one point they pulled the car over and the guys quickly put away two six-packs—the girls didn’t drink. Back on the road, the driver thought it would be fun to see what it was like to go 100 mph. He lost control of the car, sending it eighty-five feet into the air before it landed upside down in the woods near a country road. Alisa was killed.
Sadly, stories like this are played out across the country thousands of times every year. The hard truth is that motor vehicle accidents are the number one killer of teenagers, and 28 percent of 15–20-year-old drivers killed in auto crashes in 2005 had been drinking, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drinking-and-driving accidents may peak during the holidays and school breaks, when teens have a lot of free time while parents are at work or busy with holiday preparations. The question is: How can a parent prevent what could lead to a devastating outcome?
Why Teens Drink and Drive
You’ve got to wonder what teenagers are thinking when they make such poor decisions. But that’s just it—they’re not thinking, at least not the way an adult might. Cumulative research that began at the National Institutes of Health in the 1990s indicates that the region of the brain where reasoning and problem solving take place isn’t fully formed until early adulthood, leading some experts to suggest that teens probably shouldn’t drink mind-altering alcohol at all—much less drink it and drive. Other research shows that young people take substantially greater risks when with peers.
“Teenagers flat-out do not understand how dangerous it is to drink and drive, plus they have a sense of invulnerability and a belief that bad things happen to other people,” says Anthony Wolf, PhD, author of Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager. Add to that the power of peer pressure and a tendency to act impulsively, and it’s not all that hard to imagine how a teen might end up intoxicated and behind the wheel or in a car with someone who is.
The recent spate of DUIs among young celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan probably doesn’t help matters. Some teens are surely turned off by their antics, but Stephen Wallace, PhD, CEO of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), thinks irresponsible celebrities are sending exactly the wrong message: “They’re making it seem like a big joke, promoting the idea that drugging, drinking and driving, getting arrested, and going to rehab are just what young people do.”
Once a teen is among a group who drinks, it can be hard for him to speak up, even if he knows it’s the right thing to do. A teenager might be embarrassed about calling his parents for a ride home because it seems babyish or uncool. And if he’s been drinking, he won’t want his parents to find out; also, his own judgment will be distorted by alcohol.
What You Can Do
Most teens actually respect what their parents have to say. According to MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), numerous studies show that parents are a primary factor in young people’s decisions, especially when it comes to alcohol. Some tips to remember:
Talk to your teen. Discussions about drinking and driving should begin at age ten or eleven, well before your child gets a driver’s license. “Don’t lecture, but give accurate information about how dangerous this is,” says Von Karin King, PsyD, manager of the Mental Health Clinic at Hazelden’s Center for Youth and Families in Plymouth, Minnesota. Be specific about what can happen to him: He could lose his driving privileges, or injure or kill himself or a friend. Let him know that he can always call you to pick him up—anytime, anywhere, no questions asked.
Reinforce your family’s values. Many substance-abuse specialists and organizations like MADD and SADD advocate total abstinence until the legal drinking age of twenty-one and believe parents should have zero tolerance for any drinking—with the exception of religious rites. They contend that teens who are allowed to drink at home won’t be able to hold back in other situations, not to mention the mixed message about obeying the law. However, some parents feel comfortable letting their teens toast the holidays with a sip of champagne. “Just be sure your teen understands that even one drink can impair judgment,” says Jeffrey Wolfsberg, a consultant to schools on drinking and drug use and the author of the CD set Mom, Did You Ever Try Drugs? “This means drinking and driving is never acceptable.”
Know your teen. As you establish family policy, consider your teenager’s personality and tendencies. If he’s prone to depression, for example, he may be more apt to use alcohol as an escape during the forced gaiety of the holidays or as “self-medication” and to see a joyride as a break from reality, says Dr. King. (If your teen seems unusually irritable, tired, or withdrawn, seek professional help.) A teen highly susceptible to peer pressure may also be at risk for drinking problems. These traits should be a factor in setting house rules on drinking.
Know yourself. There’s no evidence that teens whose parents drink moderately are more apt to drink than teens whose parents abstain. Still, teens tend to imitate their parents’ habits. If you drink every night and at every social occasion, you show that this is acceptable. The same goes if you laugh at drunkenness. Model responsible behavior by having a designated driver when your family goes out to dinner. Also, show your teen sober fun by hosting alcohol-free parties and by abstaining once in a while.
Enforce consequences. Make it clear to your teen that driving is a privilege—not a right—that you will take away if you ever find he’s been drinking and driving or in a car whose driver has been drinking. You both might sign a contract that outlines rules and expectations. (Allstate offers an excellent one; to download it here.)
Keep tabs on your teen. It’s hard to stay on top of everything when you’re a busy working mom, but it’s critical to know who your teen’s friends are and where they’re going. Your best policy: Let your teen know you’re aware. Follow Dr. Wolf’s advice and “be the kind of parent who’s awake and greets her teen when he comes home at night.”
By Christina Frank