For a teenager, getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage: the beginning of a journey toward social independence. For some parents, however, it’s a reality marred by myriad “what ifs” and unsettling statistics.
“I never thought this day would come,” says Joanne Noble, whose eldest daughter, Rachel, just passed her road test. “I hear all sorts of horrific stories of young, fresh drivers dying on our roads because of alcohol or very little experience behind the wheel and it scares me.”
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), road crashes still remain the leading cause of death among teenagers. Forty-five per cent of these crashes are a direct result of impaired driving.
“Teenagers, in general, think they’re invincible,” says Carolyn Swinson. “They probably think they’re capable of doing a lot more than they actually can.”
Swinson, who once held the position of chair of MADD Canada’s National Board, says teens are more likely to take risks when behind the wheel, compared to older, more experienced drivers.
“When you read about accidents involving young drivers who have been drinking, there are usually other factors involved,” she continues. “Speed, inexperience, the lack of seatbelt, and alcohol is definitely a recipe for disaster.”
Over the years, MADD Canada has conducted a number of studies to understand why young drivers are over-represented in road crashes. Their findings revealed two primary reasons: inexperience and immaturity. Results from subsequent studies also suggest that teenagers are more likely to be killed or injured during the summer months (32.4% and 40.8%, respectively), especially during the evening hours and on weekends.
Why do teens take unnecessary risks?
Advances in neurobiology have led researchers to determine why teens are susceptible to risky behaviour. During early-to-mid adolescence, a chemical substance called dopamine – a neurotransmitter responsible for the pleasure and reward circuit of the brain – is at its most heightened level of activity, compared to any other stage of life. Since most things feel especially pleasurable during adolescence, teenagers tend to actively seek out new and often dangerous experiences.
“To a teenager, driving fast, unprotected sex, and alcohol feel so good that thoughts about a speeding ticket (or worse), an unwanted pregnancy, or being grounded for coming home smelling of beer don’t even make it onto the adolescent’s radar,” writes Dr. Laurence Steinberg in his book You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25.
A renowned expert on psychological development during adolescence, Dr. Steinberg points out that teenagers are still very weak when it comes to impulse control. Their interest in sensation seeking, on the other hand, is stronger than ever, and this dichotomy often sets them up for making some serious mistakes.
Moreover, the adolescent brain is still developing, and as a result it responds differently to alcohol than the fully developed adult brain does. "What you have is a more wide awake, impaired, moving drunk," says Dr. John Knight, director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children’s Hospital Boston. “Compared to adults, teens do not become as sleepy and they have less gross motor impairment, but their thinking is every bit as impaired.”
When most adults consume too much alcohol a certain protective activity kicks in, causing most people to want to sink into a chair and sleep it off, adds Dr. Knight, “but this just doesn’t happen with teens.”
Practical advice for parents
“Don’t preach to your kids,” says Swinson. “You have to really make them aware of the dangers of impaired driving. You have to talk to them and you have to understand them. Let them know that you have expectations.”
Dr. Steinberg agrees and stresses that the child must understand the consequences for not living up to those expectations.
“When your teenager gets a driver’s license, establish the ground rules and penalties for breaking them,” he says. “If the teenager drives when he has been drinking, you will confiscate his license for a month, two months, or even six months, depending on the incident; if she doesn’t call you or find another ride when her date is drunk, she won’t be allowed to go out with that boy for a month; ditto for a boy with older friends who drive.”
Finally, parents have an additional level of responsibility to uphold, particularly when it comes to their home being used as a venue for teens to gather and party. Providing underage drinkers with alcohol is against the law and the consequences of doing so are often lethal, Dr. Knight points out.
“Never, ever provide alcohol for teens to drink in your home thinking you can take away the keys and keep them safe, it can’t be done,” he says. “Up to 30% of parents do this and it’s deadly.”
More tips on how to keep your teenager safe
- Encourage them to get in the habit of choosing a designated driver.
- Network with other parents in the community, and take turns being the designated driver Friday and Saturday nights.
- Make seatbelt wearing mandatory.
- Be a role model and set a good example when it comes to drinking.
- Provide them with the number of a reliable taxi service and the necessary cab fare.
- No matter what time of day, agree to pick them up when they call for a ride home. No questions asked.
For more information about how alcohol affects teens, please see Teen drinking linked to problem drinking in adulthood, and Dr. Pat on underage drinking. For more information about the teenage brain, please see Intelligence and the adolescent brain and My limbic system made me do it.