Impaired Driving: Laws, Penalties and Consequences
Drunk Driving Among Teenagers

Drunk Driving Among Teenagers: Driving Under The Influence

Updated Dec. 25, 2020

According to 2016 statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) drivers aged 15 to 20-years old account for just over 5% of all licensed drivers in the United States yet are responsible for nearly 10% of all fatal traffic collisions. Of the 4,514 young drivers who had been involved in fatal crashes that year, an enormous 19% had alcohol in their systems. A report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that young people aged 12 to 21 years old account for 10% of the nation’s total alcohol consumption. These are staggering facts, considering people under 21 are not legally allowed to drink alcohol!

Despite the number of high school teens drinking and driving having dropped by 54% since 1991, the number of 16 to 20-year olds involved in fatal crashes each year has recently begun to rise. Since 2015, fatal collisions involving teen drivers have increased by 3.6% across the country. Underage drinking has a lot to answer for here, as we know over 30% of all fatal teen car crashes involve alcohol.

A significant number of teen drunk-driving crashes involve a considerable amount of alcohol. The NHTSA 2016 crash data shows that of the 862 young drivers that were involved in fatal collisions AND had consumed alcohol, 674 had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over the legal adult limit of 0.08%.

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States and clearly, underage alcohol consumption is contributing to the problem. The question is, why are so many young drivers ignoring the risks and getting behind the wheel after drinking alcohol?

Teen drinking: myths vs reality

Underage drinking is a multi-faceted problem with no clear root cause. Many teenagers (and even adults) drink alcohol because of misconceptions about what it will do for their personal image and self-esteem. There is a tendency to think that drinking alcohol will make you seem “cool” in front of your friends, give you confidence and help you to forget your troubles. In reality, the complete opposite is true. Here are the truths behind some common alcohol myths:

Myth: Drinking alcohol will make you more popular among your peers.

Truth: There is nothing “cool” about being drunk. If drinking alcohol seems to make you more popular with other people, it is likely to be for all the wrong reasons. People who get drunk often engage in crazy, unpredictable behavior and become the butt of jokes among all their friends. You may feel like you’re being the “life and soul” of the party when you’ve been drinking, but people are more likely to be laughing at you, than with you.

Alcohol intoxication causes slurred speech, loss of motor skills, the inability to form coherent sentences, stumbling, falling over and vomiting. This sort of behavior is not going to impress anybody! People may laugh at you, feel sorry for you or get angry with you. The next day, you may feel ashamed about your drunken antics and have to deal with insensitive people mocking you for it.

Myth: Drinking alcohol will make you more confident.

Truth: It is true that alcohol lowers inhibitions, leaving the drinker feeling temporarily more confident and care-free. However, these seemingly “positive” effects do not last. In the long-term, regular alcohol consumption will have a detrimental effect on your mental health. Alcohol creates a chemical imbalance in the brain which will eventually lead you to be less happy, less confident, more anxious and even depressed in your day-to-day life. Moreover, you may reach a point where you feel you cannot socialize or talk to other people without an alcoholic drink to spur you on. This is how alcoholism begins.

Myth: Drinking alcohol helps you to escape your problems.

Truth: If anything, alcohol will create more problems. Alcohol does not make any of your existing problems go away, it might simply muffle the pain they cause you and distract you for a few hours. When you sober up, your problems will still be there and you may have new problems to accompany them, like what you did last night, or how you’re going to get through that exam with a hangover. When people who are upset, anxious or stressed out drink alcohol, their response to drinking is often negative. Instead of feeling happy and care-free, you may end up feeling angry, hopeless, depressed, or even suicidal.

Myth: Your friends will not want to hang out with you if you don’t drink alcohol.

Truth: Your friends will likely respect you more for your refusal to drink alcohol. Young people are increasingly health-conscious these days, with more abstaining from drink, drugs and other damaging behaviors than ever before. It may be that your refusal to drink inspires others around you to do the same! At any rate, there is nothing you would do while drinking alcohol that you cannot do without drinking alcohol. You can still go to parties and social events – you just will not have to suffer memories of embarrassing behavior or hangovers the next day. Any person who shuns you or is critical of you for not drinking alcohol is not truly your friend and is not worth your time.

Myth: Drinking alcohol will stop your friends from pressuring you.

Truth: If you allow your friends to pressure you into drinking alcohol, their coercive behavior will not end there. Once you have shown that you can be beaten down by peer pressure, they will know exactly what to do the next time you won’t join in with some dangerous or illegal activity. Drinking alcohol is a slippery slope. You could ultimately end up being pressured into taking drugs, stealing and other criminal acts.

Increased risk among young drivers

According to the CDC, young drivers aged between 16 and 20 are 17 times more likely to die in a collision when they have a BAC of 0.08%, as opposed to when they have no alcohol in their system. That represents a phenomenal increase in risk. Young drivers are already exposed to a much greater risk of being involved in an accident or collision than older drivers. Adding alcohol and other mind-altering substances into the equation creates a situation in which something is bound to go wrong.

So, why exactly is it that teenage drivers are at far greater risk of being involved in a collision even without alcohol in the mix? One of the biggest risk-enhancing factors in younger drivers is lack of driving experience. During the first few years after a driver has acquired their license, they are more likely to be involved in a collision as they will not yet have accrued enough experience to accurately predict how different roadway situations will turn out. Consequently, they are more susceptible to underestimating danger and misjudging maneuvers than older drivers.

Furthermore, teenagers have not yet developed a sense of their own mortality and are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. They may drive dangerously to impress their friends or simply fail to fully consider the consequences of their actions. Typical teenage risk-taking behaviors include speeding, racing, weaving between traffic and failing to wear a seat belt.

Young drivers are also more easily distracted than older drivers. Quite often, the primary source of this distraction is other teenagers who are passengers in the vehicle. Teen drivers must also contend with cell phones, music and preoccupation with school, work and family stresses. Any of these distractions could result in loss of vehicle control or failing to spot hazards and other important information on the roadway.

Here are a few more figures to help you wrap your head around the danger alcohol poses to teenage drivers:

  • In 2016, a total of 1,908 15 to 20-year old drivers were killed in fatal collisions.
  • 24% of these drivers had a BAC of at least 0.01%. 19% had a BAC of 0.08% or above.
  • 44% of the young drivers involved in fatal crashes, who had been drinking, were not wearing a seat belt.
  • 58% of the young drivers killed in fatal crashes, who had been drinking, were not wearing a seat belt.

Alcohol worsens all the natural impairments that teenage drivers already suffer from by causing forgetfulness, clouded cognition, limited motor skills, poor judgment and over-confidence. As you can see from the statistics above, nearly half of all young drivers involved in fatal alcohol-related collisions in 2016 were not wearing a seat belt at the time of the incident. Alcohol’s effect on their cognition and judgment almost certainly played a part in this.

According to the NHTSA figures above, an enormous 19% of teenage drivers who had been drinking when they were killed in a fatal collision had a BAC over the legal adult limit. This reflects the tendency among teenagers to engage in binge drinking, where a large amount of alcohol is consumed over a short period. As a result of wide-spread binge drinking, teenagers who drink and drive are likely to be very impaired when they get behind the wheel. This leads us to the final reason that teen drunk driving is such a huge problem in the United States: teenagers do not have enough experience with alcohol to know their limits or make sensible decisions regarding drink.

As soon as a teenager has consumed any alcohol, their judgment is affected to the degree that they are prone to drink more, and more. Furthermore, lack of tolerance to alcohol means that a teenage driver will likely experience even greater physical and mental impairments as a result of the alcohol they have consumed.

Keeping risk to a minimum

If you are a teenage driver, you need to do everything you can to minimize your risk of being involved in an accident or collision. The odds are already against you, simply because you are a young and inexperienced driver! If you value your life and your future, you cannot afford to engage in risk-enhancing behavior that will increase the danger you face on the road. Keep in mind that drinking alcohol is just about the worst thing you could do. It’s not worth the risk – do not drink and drive.

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