The Phantom Menace: Drugging and Driving Poses Threat to Teens During Summer Season

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed

"Summer's lease hath all too short a date," wrote William Shakespeare, apparently foreshadowing the all-too-soon approach of fall. But a short summer season is time enough still for even the most unlikely of kids to find trouble in the most likely of places:  cars and roadways. Indeed, reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration make clear the devastating spike in teen fatalities during June, July, and August.

With adult attention focused squarely on the dangers of teen drinking and driving (at least among those adults who bother to focus on such matters at all), another—and seemingly more common—threat to adolescent safety remains largely hidden and often difficult to detect: drugging and driving. 

As if rampant pot smoking by teens weren't problem enough, many of them believe that driving under the influence of cannabis poses little risk of impaired operation and virtually no chance of arrest. And that's bad news heading into one of the most dangerous times of year for young drivers.

"There's definitely a misconception that you can still drive under the influence of pot— that's what differentiates pot from alcohol," a Massachusetts teen told me, mirroring a prevalent view among youth that drugging and driving is a safe alternative to drinking and driving.

Let's look at the facts:  Marijuana use, even a little, negatively affects driving performance and is linked to tens of thousands of serious automobile crashes, injuries, and deaths each year. Marijuana and cars make for a combustible mix, blurring judgment and inviting catastrophe. 

Even so, data from a Teens Today survey of middle and high school students conducted by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions/Students Against Driving Drunk) and Liberty Mutual Group reveals that:

  • At least one in three 7th–12th graders has used or is using drugs (36 percent)
  • The majority of licensed teen drivers who use drugs regularly also drug and drive (68 percent)
  • Among teens, driving after drugging is more prevalent (68 percent of those who use drugs regularly) than is driving after drinking (47 percent of those who drink regularly)
  • More than one third of teens who are using drugs regularly are not concerned about riding in a car with a driver who is using drugs (38 percent)

Scary.  So why is no one talking about this?

First, a preponderance of parents is unaware of the degree to which their teens have access to—and use—drugs.

Second, many parents who are aware seem unconcerned, perhaps underestimating the potency of today's weed (estimated to be ten to twenty times stronger than the marijuana of yesteryear) or the possible consequences of its use.

But driving is only the quickest route to drug-induced disaster. Marijuana is, in fact, addictive and, much like alcohol and other drugs, it directly affects the brain, impairing the ability of young people to think, learn, and grow . . . and all of this at a time when significant cognitive reorganization is taking place. In addition, clinicians observing kids on pot note increased apathy, loss of ambition, diminished ability to pursue long-term plans, and a decline in school performance. 

Marijuana is also used by more than a few teens to avoid dealing with, or to mask, important emotions brought about by a lot of "first-time" situations, thus deferring problem solving and delaying healthy emotional development. 

So what's a concerned parent to do?  Plenty.

  • Educate yourself. There is a lot of new scientific and medical information available on marijuana.
  • Talk with your teen. Explain the physical effects of marijuana and other drugs, their impact on driving, and the legal, social, and emotional risks involved with their use. Teens who have open and honest communication with their parents are more likely to make good choices and to report that their parents' methods of preventing them from using drugs are effective.
  • Monitor whom your teen spends time with. The likelihood of marijuana use is significantly higher among those teens with friends who smoke pot.
  • Don't give up. Teens who believe their parents provide a good influence are significantly less likely to ride in a car with a driver who is drunk or on drugs.

For many teens, summer represents a much-needed break from the stress of school, sports, and extracurricular commitments. But freedom and fun have their limits. Developing a dialogue that transcends perfunctory warnings and reflects reasonable discipline will go a long way toward making sure that kids make it back to school when the fleeting lease on summer is over.

Stephen Wallace, M.S.Ed., has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as chairman and CEO of SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about SADD or the Teens Today research, visit www.sadd.org.

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