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Another Voice: This is a dangerous time of the year for teen drivers

By Stephen Gray Wallace

Prom and graduation season, the Fourth of July and summer vacation give pause to parents of teenagers everywhere. Why? Because celebration paired with newfound freedom can trigger tragedy on our roads.

Indeed, young people themselves report that these times of year are the most dangerous when it comes to driving. And alcohol and other drugs are primary reasons.

According to new research from Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, 23 percent of teens admit to driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or other drugs. With 13 million driving-age teenagers, that means as many as 3 million impaired adolescents may be taking to the road.

Ironically, 91 percent of teens consider themselves to be safe, cautious drivers. For example, nearly 40 percent claim that alcohol has no impact on their driving. Some even say it helps. And when it comes to operating a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana, a whopping 75 percent feel the same way.

Specifically, about one in four teens who have driven under the influence of marijuana or prescription drugs, and about one in seven teens who report drinking and driving, say they’re not distracted “at all” when mixing substance abuse with driving.

This cavalier attitude toward driving under the influence is made more somber in light of recent data from the Governors Highway Safety Association, which found an alarming 19 percent increase in the number of teen driver deaths (ages 16 and 17) in the first half of 2012.

“The end of the school year and the summer months are exciting times for teens, but they are also the most dangerous,” says Dave Melton, a driving safety expert with Liberty Mutual Insurance and managing director of global safety.

“A celebratory toast can quickly lead to serious consequences down the line. These new data illustrate that there is clearly a strong need to increase the level of education around risk. More importantly, it’s a flag for parents to make sure they talk to their kids regularly about the importance of safe driving behavior.”

The good news is that more than 90 percent of teens say their school has a program or policy in place to deter illegal behavior. Additionally, the use of Breathalyzers at school events is up nearly 25 percent. Yet, while school programs play an important role in keeping teens from engaging in dangerous activities, unsupervised celebrations make parent communication about safe driving more critical than ever.

Stephen Gray Wallace is senior adviser for policy, research and education at SADD and an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education.