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Driving Under the Influence of Drugs: What Parents Should Know 

drug impaired driving in teenagers

Did you know that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that teen drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 have a fatal crash rate that is three times higher than older drivers. While this is largely due to inexperience and teens’ propensity for risky behaviors, driving under the influence is also to blame. And we are not just talking about drunk driving. Close to 12 million teenagers have driven under the influence of drugs, according to a national survey in 2021.

Driving under the influence is always a danger and concern. But during this time of year, the risk of car accidents due to drunk or drugged driving is especially high. Research shows that DUI arrests peak between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, along with fatalities involving a drunk- or drugged- driver. This is due to more people being on the road, travelling from place to place, as well as more holiday parties and gatherings taking place during this time of year. 

As such, December is recognized as National Drunk and Drugged Driving Month. During a time in which social events and substance use increases, more and more drivers are hitting the road while under the influence. As parents, it is our job to ensure our teenagers – who are inherently prone to risky behaviors like drug use, speeding, and driving without a seatbelt – stay safe while on the road. Further, it’s important they know when to stay off the road, when they are not fit to drive.

Turnbridge has compiled this guide to outline all the facts about driving under the influence of drugs, and what parents can do to keep their sons and daughters safe. 

Fact Facts About Drugged Driving in Teens

Teenagers may be more likely to drive while high than drunk.

A national study found that five percent of teens admitted to drinking and driving in the last 30 days. However more than double this percentage, at least 13 percent of teens, reported they had recently driven while high on marijuana. The dangers of drunk driving are often enforced and clear to many teens, but the risks of driving while high are not always so obvious. As a result, teenagers are often getting behind the wheel while under the influence of drugs.

All types of drugs can alter a teen’s ability to drive.

Marijuana is the most commonly abused substance by teenagers, after alcohol. This drug, while it may seem harmless, has dangerous effects on drivers of all ages. Marijuana disrupts a person’s judgment and decision-making skills. It inhibits their motor control and coordination, and slows down their reaction times. These skills are all needed to drive safely.

However, marijuana is not the only drug inhibiting a teen’s ability to drive. Some prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications can cause extreme drowsiness, dizziness, shakiness, and impaired cognitive function. Opioids, or painkillers, are one example—triggering sleepiness, lethargy, and unclear thinking. And teens will often abuse these drugs recreationally. Therefore, parents must be aware of the risks that many drugs, no matter how safe or legal they may seem, can inhibit one’s driving skills. As the U.S. Department of Transportation suggests: “Read and follow all warning labels before driving, and note that warnings against ‘operating heavy machinery’ include driving a vehicle.”

Additionally, ensure that your teenager is not combining drugs and alcohol. This is a recipe for disaster, significantly disrupting one’s ability to drive.

It is illegal to drive under the influence of drugs in every state.

Drugged driving is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration warns that, “just like driving after drinking, driving while under the influence of drugs can get you arrested.”

The majority (56 percent) of drivers involved in serious crashes, causing injury or fatality, test positive for at least one drug in their system. Yet still, nearly 1 in 4 of all drivers in an NHTSA survey tested positive for drugs that could impair their driving ability. And 10 percent of weekday, daytime drivers test positive for prescription and/or over-the-counter drugs. There is a clear lack of awareness and knowledge around the risks of drugged driving, which in turn is putting more people in danger while on the road.

Waiting to “sober up” does not mean a person is safe to drive.

SAMHSA, a national resource for substance abuse and mental health information, urges everyone this season to understand this: There are no shortcuts to “sobering up” and preparing to drive. Coffee is not a cure-all. And even slowing down one’s intake, or stopping drinking an hour or more, before planning to drive does not mean that one is fit to drive. Slowed reaction and coordination time can be a lingering effect of drug and alcohol use. These effects can also occur even before a person shows other signs of intoxication.

How to Keep Your Teen from Driving Under the Influence of Drugs

Outside of basic education on drugged driving, one of the first things parents should do is know the signs of a drunk or high teenager. Teenagers are a phase of brain development where they do not always think rationally or understand the potential consequences of their actions. They are quicker to make decisions and act on impulse than the average adult. With that in mind, parents can help to stop teenagers from making the bad decision to get behind the wheel when they are showing signs of:

  • Red, bloodshot, or glazed-over eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Delayed reaction time
  • Poor coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Distorted sense of surroundings/impaired perception
  • Drowsiness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Confusion, delusions, or hallucinations
  • Unusual changes in mood (elevated hyperactivity, anxiousness, elation, etc.)
  • General avoidance of you and other family members

You can learn more about the signs of an intoxicated teen here. 

In addition, parents should plan to have ongoing, open conversations with their teenagers about the dangers of drug use and driving under the influence. Discussing the dangers of underage substance abuse, especially when combined with driving, can help your teen think more about the potential consequences that might have been otherwise ignored.

As more friends are home from school and on break, your son or daughter will likely be eager to attend social events and spend time with their peers. Help your teenager stay safe, on and off the road, by: 

  • Discussing the dangers of underage alcohol and drug abuse, and how substances impact one’s ability to drive.
  • Educating your teenager about the laws around drugged driving, and setting expectations.
  • Establishing curfews for your teen, and offering to drive them to and from social gatherings.
  • Teaching and encouraging your teen to say “no thank you” in difficult situations, such as saying “no” to drinks or drugs at a party, or saying “no” to getting a ride from a friend who is under the influence.
  • Developing an emergency exit strategy, so that your teen can avoid accepting rides from peers who are drunk or high.
  • Coordinating a driving plan with your teen’s friends’ parents, to ensure everyone stays safe. 
  • Ensuring open and honest lines of communication with your teenager. Let your teen know that, no matter the circumstance, you will be available if they need help getting home. 

It is never okay to get behind the wheel while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It is never okay to get in the car with a person who has been drinking or using drugs. This season, and all throughout the year, it is important that young people are aware of these basic facts. This can help keep them safe.For more information about drugged driving, or to help a teenager who is battling a substance abuse problem, Turnbridge is just one call away. As an expert in adolescent substance use disorders, we are here to be a resource for your family and a safe space for those who need help. Contact us at 877-581-1793 to speak to a specialist or to learn about our treatment programs for young men and women.