Back-to-School Safety Series: Zero Tolerance Starts at Home

By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate

As teen drivers head back to school—and all the daily exposure to peer influence that implies—remember that you have influence, too. That’s especially important when the subject is impaired driving.

You already know that driving impaired is dangerous, but underage drinking and driving is especially deadly. In the United States, 19% of drivers age 15 to 20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes had a BAC of at least 0.08%.

Chart of effects of BAC levels from .01 to .10Impairment begins with the first drink or the moment a mind- or mood-altering substance is ingested, inhaled, or injected. Teenagers drive under the influence of drugs other than alcohol in astonishing numbers; among the 62.6% of students nationwide who drove during the 30 days before a 2017 survey, 5.5% had driven a car or other vehicle one or more times when they had been drinking alcohol, and 16.5% had ridden one or more times in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking. Another survey showed that 19-year-old drivers drive under the influence of drugs at the staggering rate of 16%.

It’s important to point out that a broad range of drugs can be impairing. Illicit, prescribed, and over-the-counter drugs can all impair a driver. Whether it’s an allergy medication from the drug store or a prescription from a doctor, if the warning label reads, “do not operate heavy machinery,” that includes a car; driving should be avoided until the side effects pass.

Impairment is...

As a group, teenagers are at higher risk of experimenting with drugs or alcohol than adults. Teens’ brains are still developing and they’re less able to control their impulses than adults. It’s easy to see how teens can feel fearless in the face of tragedies they assume will “never happen to them”—until they do. The threat of injury from impaired driving crashes shouldn’t be the only deterrent. Consuming any alcohol at all under the age of 21 is illegal. All states have zero-tolerance laws for drivers under 21, meaning that driving with any or a very low BAC comes with great consequence. Teens who drive impaired can face DUI “school,” a lifelong conviction on their arrest record, and even jail time. And as more states begin to legalize marijuana, it’s a good time to remind teens that driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) is illegal and, more importantly, can be deadly.

End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment in Transportation is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements, and it applies to drivers of all ages. But young drivers (ages 16­­–20) are 17 times more likely to die in a crash when they have a BAC of .08% than when they have not been drinking. Although the number of underage impaired driving crashes has decreased over the past decade, in 2016, alcohol was still a factor in 20 percent of fatal crashes involving teens.

For teenagers, the world is small, and nebulous concepts like dying in a car crash are more easily heard than taken to heart. Talk to your teen about the dangers of impaired driving—share with them a story of someone in your community who was killed or injured as the result of a drunk or drugged driver. Make clear to your teen that a poor choice, such as driving impaired, can negatively affect the rest of their life; for example, even if no one is hurt in an impaired-driving incident, a DUI, DWI, or DUID on your teen’s record can disqualify him or her from getting certain jobs as an adult.

Maybe most importantly: lead by example. Make it a household rule that driving impaired by any substance is unacceptable, and hold yourself to that rule. Choose to drink or drive, but not both. At the same time, assure your teen that if he or she does slip up and drink or do drugs, they can—and should—always call you or another trusted adult for a ride home. There may be a consequence to their choice, but it will never be as severe as what impaired driving could bring.

Be aware of the influences your teen faces at school every day, and counteract any negative ones with your own. Set the standard in your home and prep your teen up for success as the pressures of the school year go into full swing.

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