hashDriving accidents remain the number one cause of mortality among American teenagers. Alcohol use is often involved, and more recently, distracted driving as a result of cell phones is a contributor. A recent analysis has found that drinking and driving has decreased among teenagers, but using marijuana and driving as increased. Impaired driving is a major risk factor for accidents, especially among new and young drivers, which makes this a disturbing trend.


In this longitudinal study, a sample of 22,000 12th grade students from a variety of high schools across the country were questioned over a ten year period, from 2001-2011. They showed an increase over the 10-year period in either being the driver or passenger of a driver who had just used marijuana. Specifically, 28% reported doing so within the past two weeks.


Teenagers will always be in a high-risk category due to the qualities that go along with adolescence: impulsivity, not thinking of potential consequences, feeling invincible, relying on emotions rather than logic, and a lack of life experience and knowledge. Due to those qualities, there is no secret to why teenagers engage in dangerous behaviors. However, if alcohol use has decreased over this period there must be a reason why, and it is unlikely due to decreases in drinking. Rather, the campaign to reduce drinking and driving seems to have worked. Teenagers often use designated drivers or avoid driving after drinking. Somehow, using marijuana is not seen the same as drinking and so is not viewed as dangerous. Also, in the case of being a passenger in a vehicle, this risky behavior is more of a passive behavior.


What can we do? These types of descriptive studies are useful for giving us a picture of what’s happening so we can begin to think about steps to take to improve the situation. Teenagers are obviously viewing marijuana use, as well as cell phone use, as less risky or dangerous than drinking and driving, which is greatly untrue. It is now our job to begin to have conversations with teens about avoiding all types of distracted driving, as well as avoiding being in the car with someone who is impaired. Here are some key points that could be relayed during these conversations that should happen regularly.


  1. Relay the amount of danger that is associated with any type of impairment while driving. Talk about cases in the news, people you know, videos on YouTube, or personal experience. Giving teens information is the first step in helping them make wise decisions.
  2. Encourage a conversation in which teenagers will feel comfortable sharing why they may be hesitant to say something to the driver or get out of a car with an impaired driver. We know that teenagers, as with all human beings, are afraid of being embarrassed or rejected by peers. Acknowledge those concerns and introduce the idea of being a leader or confident to stand apart from their friends at times. Role plays are often used in therapy to practice what a teen may do in this type of situation in order to help them be prepared for the real event.
  3. Give teenagers options. Some parents have a “no questions asked” policy, allowing their teenager calls to call for a ride if they feel unsafe, and the parents will not require the teen to tell them why. Depending on the environment, some parents help their teenagers to keep fare on them for public transportation, or money for a cab ride. Providing teenagers with a supportive environment if they encounter the complicated social situation of wanting to avoid driving with a group of friends can help the teenager to see options other than passively going along with everyone else. That means acknowledging the difficulty in choosing not to get in the car with someone and expressing confidence in the teen that they are able to make the right decision, along with being proud of them once they do so.


Teenagers are able to make wise choices! Although more work needs to go into figuring out how to reduce these numbers, providing information, open-communication, and support, is a great place to start.


Reference: O’Malley, P. & Johnson, L. Driving After Drug or Alcohol Use by US High School. American Journal of Public Health. Nov. 2013, Vol 103, No. 11.

Using marijuana in a car image available from Shutterstock.