Parents: You can help reduce alcohol-related crash deaths

A recent study published online in Pediatrics should remind all of us about the deadly role of alcohol for our youth: Alcohol is involved in one in five crash fatalities among young people under the age of 21 in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (the number for the US is one in four). This number includes all deaths– not just the drivers, but also their passengers. While other countries have seen progress in alcohol-related crash deaths, the US as a whole has not.

Further, the study emphasized that we, as parents, cannot rely on our state laws to protect our teens. There is a wide range across US states in the enactment of effective alcohol laws, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey are in the middle of the pack. This points to the very important role that parents have in reducing this trend in filling in where our state has left off – both in our home state and when our young adults venture to other states for travel, work, and college.

With this in mind, I wanted to give parents evidence-based recommendations to support their essential role in reducing the tragedy of alcohol-related crash deaths:

Start with knowing your child and who is driving your child. It has long been known that youth who drink or drive under the influence of alcohol put themselves and others at risk.  Further, these adolescent drinkers are also more likely to ride as passengers of impaired drivers. This new study lists characteristics of drivers who died in alcohol-related crashes: More likely male, older (18 to 20 years old), and non-Hispanic Whites. The passengers who died tell a different story: They were more likely female, slightly younger (16 to 17-years-old) and non-White. 

Know when to be concerned about alcohol-related crashes: Nearly half of the deaths happened at night on weekends. 

Know the amount and pattern of drinking of which your child and those who drive your child might be engaged. The US legal drinking limit is higher than in other countries, affecting the safety of all drivers, and among young drivers there is no safe limit for alcohol. It has long been known that any amount of alcohol is dangerous for young drivers and that the risk increases with greater amounts of alcohol in their system. The study showed that one in four young people died in crashes in which the driver was driving UNDER the so-called legal limit.

The dangers associated with alcohol and driving are exacerbated with the sadly common situation of binge drinking, a pattern of drinking that brings the person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.8 grams percent or above in a short time – typically five drinks for men and four drinks for women in about two hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a common dangerous practice, unfortunately, among adolescents who “pre-game” before going out.

Don’t forget about your own drinking patterns. Remember that a major policy goal (whether this is for a state or for your family) is to avoid driving anyone (ourselves, our children, or other passengers) after any amount of alcohol.  Previous research has shown that children who die in car crashes are often driven by parents or other adults who are under the influence.

To learn more about alcohol policies and underage drinking related information for your state, visit the Mothers Against Drunk Driving website.

Here’s how to implement a parent’s policy with your teen:

  • Have zero tolerance. It is unlawful for your teen to possess or drink alcohol at any level, especially when driving. Make it clear that driving after drinking is not okay, ever.
  • Talk about it. It is very important for you to talk with your teen about riding with an impaired driver and driving impaired. These conversations should occur regularly when your teen’s newly licensed friends offer a ride or when your teen begins driving independently.
  • Explain the facts. Alcohol affects our reaction times and ability to drive safely as do other substances, like marijuana and prescription pills, that affect alertness. Consuming any of these substances means your teen is unfit to drive.
  • Follow Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) laws: Nighttime driving restrictions (from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. in PA and NJ and from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in DE) and passenger restrictions for newly licensed young drivers help reduce crash risk.
  • Talk about emergency plans and a Code Word. Make a concrete plan to help your teen when feeling unsafe. Decide how your teen will get in touch with you when uncomfortable accepting a ride from a driver who has been drinking. Use a code word or phrase like: “How is Julie feeling?” that signals help is needed right away. You can respond with: “Not well, I need you to come home.”

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