A recent article in the Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, was one of the first to look over time at teens’ risk of driving under the influence (DUI) or riding with a drinking driver (RWDD). Motor vehicle accidents are one of the top 3 leading cause of death for teens and young adults in the US. We have written about the dangers of driving while texting & driving while using drugs in the past.  At the same time, we’ve emphasized that parents are crucial in setting expectations, boundaries, and consequences for teen drug use. This article provides even stronger evidence for characteristics and perceptions that are risk factors for teen DUI.

In the article, researchers focused on the sample of California students surveyed in 6th and 7th grade (2009), then surveyed in 2011, and finally in 2013. A total of 1124 middle school students were included in their analysis. By the end of the study, 88% were of legal age to drive in California (age 16). They asked students questions about themselves related to use, questions regarding peer use, and finally questions about family closeness and parent permissiveness. For individual questions, the were asked if they’d ever driven after drinking or consuming drugs, if they’d ever been a passenger in a car with someone who was using alcohol or drugs in the past year. Researchers also asked about experiencing negative consequences from using alcohol or marijuana, positive beliefs about alcohol or marijuana (such as ‘alcohol relaxes you’) and self-efficacy to resist using substances. Examples of peer questions included asking if their best friend used substances, if they perceived their friends used, and how much time they spent with friends who were using alcohol and/or marijuana.

Their findings:

When teens were in middle school, more positive beliefs about marijuana and a stronger belief in their personal ability to resist marijuana use were associated with increased risk of DUI/RWDD. Greater friend approval of alcohol use and being around peers who used was associated with increased risk of DUI/RWDD 4 years later. Protective factors included greater respect for parents.

When surveyed in late middle school, adolescents who drank alcohol only, who perceived their friends were drinking, or those who spent more time with teens who were using marijuana all had higher risk of DUI/RWDD 2 years later. Teens who perceived family members were using marijuana also had increased risk.

Finally, when teens were surveyed in high school, the same factors were associated with increased risk of DUI/RWDD including perceived prevelance of alcohol use, being around peers who use marijuana often, and perception of family members using when the teen was in late middle school.

How can parents translate these findings?

  • Early encounters with substance use can increase their risk years later of DUI/RWDD for tweens and teens in middle school. Parents should start discussions early about drugs and alcohol.
  • Set the expectation that alcohol and drug use (including marijuana) is not acceptable.
  • Know your teen’s friends and social group and talk with the parents of their friends about behavioral expectations.
  • Consider having a ‘free phone call’ rule. If your teen does end up drinking or using drugs, allow them to call you to come pick them up while remaining calm. Wait to discuss the consequences when everyone is safe, sober, and emotions are not so much a part of the conversation.