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Is your teen learning to drink and drive?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  March 21, 2014 07:54 AM

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car accident.jpgIt's one of those inescapable truths: we learn by example. When it comes to teens and driving, it's particularly true. 

Driving is a "socially regulated behavior." Yes, there are some specific skills involved, like turning on the ignition and changing gears. But so much of it is individual; we each have our own variation of using the brakes, looking for oncoming cars, changing lanes, changing speed. We also have our own variations on how we act, and what we do, while we drive. Some of this is just our personalities--but a lot of what we do we learn from watching others.

Including, according to a study recently published in the journal Pediatrics, whether we drink and drive. Researchers found that if teens had ridden in a car driven by someone who had been drinking, they were more likely to do it themselves. The study didn't tease out whether it was peers, parents or someone else who drove them while under the influence--although, the researchers said, it's the example of it that is important, no matter who does it.

We tell kids not to drink and drive...but when they see someone do it, and nothing bad happens, they think: maybe it's okay to do this after all. Maybe the risks are exaggerated, they think. Maybe it's just a matter of being careful. The fact that alcohol impairs judgment and reaction time no matter how carefully you try to drive gets lost, especially on an impressionable, immature teen. 

Given that almost a third of motor vehicle fatalities are related to alcohol-impaired driving, and given that about 10 percent of teens drink and drive, here's what parents should do:
  • Never drink and drive. This seems obvious, but I'm not just talking about driving drunk. I am talking about driving after having a drink. You may know that it was just one glass of wine and you aren't impaired, but what your kid sees is that you've had alcohol and now you are driving. You can certainly talk with them about it and explain exactly how you have limited your alcohol intake to be safe, and that's a good conversation to have. But the reality is that many teens may not be able to know when they are impaired, and may think that they can handle their alcohol when they can't. So make sure that there is always a Designated Driver who doesn't have any alcohol when you are out as a family. Set a good example. 
  • Get to know your kids' friends--and their parents. We are never going to know everything about what our teens are doing when they are out of the house. But the more you get involved (In a healthy way, not a creepy way), the more you'll have a chance to sniff out problems before they happen. Let your house be the place where the kids hang out. Yeah, it could end up loud and messy--but it could pay off.
  • Set really clear expectations around alcohol use. Don't just tell your kids not to drink. I mean, sure, tell them not to drink, and have rules and consequences. But don't stop there, as the reality is that many teens do drink--according to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, more than two-thirds of high school students have tried alcohol at least once. So talk to them about being safe. 
  • Let them know that you will always come get them, no questions asked. Make sure they know that the most important thing to you is their safety, and that if they ever find themselves in a situation where their only way home is with a drunk driver (even if they are the drunk driver), they can call you--any time of day or night. You don't have to promise that there won't be any discussion or consequences of any kind at all, but you can make it clear that any discussion and consequences will be much less as a reward for having shown good judgment in calling. 
Ultimately, this is about saving lives. Your child's life. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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