It’s Not Just Alcohol Anymore: More Teens Are Driving Drugged

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It’s Not Just Alcohol Anymore: More Teens Are Driving Drugged

By Candace Lightner, President of We Save and founder of MADD, and Mi Ae Lipe, founder and creator of Driving in the Real World

Shh—there’s a big secret that most people don’t know about. It concerns driving and drugs—in this case, driving under the influence of marijuana. I repeatedly hear a ridiculous notion that you drive more carefully while stoned. This mantra of marijuana users is far from reality to those victimized by drugged driving.

Teens are especially gullible to this cruel hoax. You do not drive more carefully when you’re stoned. Joseph Beer, 17, of New York City, did not intend to kill his four friends. They were just enjoying the thrill of an automobile speeding at 100 miles an hour. Even with the sharpest mental acuity, such a daring feat on a public parkway is incredibly hazardous and downright stupid. But Joseph had been smoking a joint, and he lost control when he missed a curve and hit a tree. He survived the devastating crash, the impact of which split his car into two pieces, but his four friends were ejected and instantly perished.

Instead of college, career, marriage, and children, 5 to 15 years of incarceration will absorb Justin’s young adulthood. The memory of the lives he shattered will live on forever, and the victims’ families will spend a lifetime mourning their loved ones.

I understand their pain. I carry the scars from a driver whose drug of choice was alcohol. The death of my 13-year-old daughter Cari in 1980 to a multiple repeat-offender drunk driver still affects me to this day. It was the reason I founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and the reason I recently started We Save I wanted to ensure that my tragedy would not happen to others and to keep people from feeling my pain. Most of all, I wanted dangerous drivers to be held accountable for their actions and for everyone to learn that driving responsibly should be their goal every time they turn that key in the ignition.

Thanks to highway safety advocacy, we now know that every time you get on the road, chances are good that you’re seeing drivers of all ages under the influence. Not necessarily on alcohol, but on drugs—both illicit and perfectly legal. Although the dangers of drinking and driving are well-known, the effect of drugs is less publicized—and potentially far more lethal, given the numbers.

Consider these sobering facts:

So why do teens use drugs? For the same reasons that adults often do—to regulate their mood, stay alert, lose weight, cope with life, or just have fun. Teens abuse prescription medications, inhalants, over-the-counter medications, marijuana, cocaine, opiates, heroin, PCP, and designer drugs.

How do these drugs affect driving? Many drugs have similar effects on cognitive and motor skills as alcohol, impairing judgment, concentration, vision, and sense of risk-taking, which can lead to overconfidence, hallucinations, and unpredictable behavior. This turns especially deadly if a person ingests more than one drug at a time or also consumes alcohol, since drug interactions vary widely by individual.

What’s more, teens who regularly use marijuana are more likely to become addicted to it than adults. And research is finding that even occasional marijuana use in adolescence may actually change brain function and lower IQ.

Why is drugged driving so dangerous for teens?

Drugged driving is lethal for any age, but especially so for teens aged 16 to 19, for whom vehicle collisions are already the leading cause of death. Their natural overconfidence, sense of invincibility, lack of experience, and vulnerability to social pressure is a potent cocktail for tragedy.

Which brings us to the hard questions—what can we do to help teens drive responsibly, as parents, friends, family, classmates, teachers, physicians, and counselors?

  • Be a good role model. Do your teens see you take illegal drugs or prescription medications, then get behind the wheel? We are role models for our children, and we cannot expect them to act differently than we do.
  • Make sure that they know how to drive properly. A friend of mine is hiring a world-class driving instructor to teach her son. Parents spend more time researching colleges for their children than teaching them how to drive. Yet, driving is far more dangerous than expanding their education.
  • Hold off on letting them get their license until you are sure they are mature and responsible enough to handle a two-ton weapon. I waited until my children were past the age of 16 before I gave them permission to drive.
  • Educate them about the law and its penalties. It is against the law to drive under the influence of drugs and not just alcohol, even in a state where marijuana is allowed. These penalties can be steep, so let your teen know this isn’t a minor offense.
  • Let them know that drugged driving is as dangerous as drinking and driving. Many teens believe that it is safer to drive under the influence of drugs than alcohol. If it were, we would not see so many drug-related crashes.
  • Emphasize that drugged driving is a choice. If they make the mistake of taking drugs or if they have a drug problem, they need to refrain from driving—or face the consequences.
  • Offer to drive them home without penalty if they ever feel that driving is a risk for themselves or if riding with someone else is dangerous.
  • Ask them to take the pledge to drive alcohol- and substance-free.
  • Take the car keys away if you suspect irresponsible behavior. Remember, you are the parent and you have a lot more control than you think. Remind your child that driving is a privilege, not a right. Emphasize that you care about their safety and that of other innocent drivers on the road.
  • You can never start the discussion too early. Many parents feel awkward talking to their children about drug use. But the average age of first marijuana use is 14, and alcohol use can start before the age of 12. Kids have easier access than ever to drugs and alcohol from classmates and family members. Broaching the subject as early as kindergarten and having regular, friendly conversations about it sends the message that you care—and that you’re keeping an eye on them.
  • Stay involved. As much as adolescents tend to push adults away, letting them know that you are interested and staying active in their lives is crucial. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to get nosy about who they hang out with (or ride in other vehicles with), even if you get yelled at. Teens are often grateful for adult guidance and involvement—and listen—more than they let on.

We can never protect our children 100 percent, and when your teen starts driving, sleepless nights can become a habit. However, we can do a lot as parents to help keep our children safe. The greatest gift we can give them is to show how much we love them by providing boundaries and guidance as they continue their journey into adulthood. I am always thankful I told my daughter I loved her the night before she was killed.


Candace Lightner, founder of MADD and president of We Save Lives.



Mi Ae Life, president of Driving in the Real World

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