Dr. Wes: I was visiting with a young person the other day we’ll call Jordan. Jordan blew about three times the legal limit and joined a growing number of teens and young adults coming face to face with the consequences of drunk driving. The legal consequences, that is. The real consequences—death, maiming, a felony conviction—make a DUI seem pretty tame.
Jordan is not an alcoholic, at least not by the standards we’ve set for formal diagnosis. Jordan is a good student, who I suspect will eventually knock back a six-figure salary. However, like a great many young people, Jordan binge drinks in a way that for any other demographic would indicate severe addiction. We have as a society decided to look the other way and now consider this a normal rite of passage. Kids being kids.
Nowhere is this more problematic than in drunk driving. How do I know this? Because I’ve listened to about 200 stories in the last ten years that might collectively be called “Man, I Can’t Believe I Got Away With That.” In this fictitious volume kids age 15 to 25 recount how they got pulled over or caught by parents “when I was so drunk I could barely see straight” and somehow miraculously “got away,” sometimes with a warning, many times not. Most kids have a story like this or know a friend who does. And since I DON’T do substance abuse counseling, this isn’t a bunch of recovering teens sharing war stories. Jordan admits drunk driving since age sixteen.
So I have two things to say about this today: First, thank you law enforcement for cracking down. Keep it up. Second, parents need to presume that drunk driving is a problem either for their teens or the teens they hang out with. A single incident, whether caught by the cops or not, should be cause for the most severe consequences. Sober driving contracts should be the norm in any home with teens, and as annoying as it may be to get called out at 2:00 a.m., parents need to get their kids home safely. And don’t fear handing out the easy consequences (losing a car) before your teen gets to the terrible ones (losing a life).
Katie: Teenagers don’t become magically mature when they reach their sixteenth and eighteenth birthdays. But those birthdays come with cars and driver’s licenses, so we start believing that we’re full-blown adults. Unfortunately, teenagers’ perception of their own maturity and driving ability are often wildly out of synch with reality.
If you combine overconfidence behind the wheel with a generational tendency toward binge drinking, you have a compelling reason to stay off the roads. All too often, teenagers weigh the fun of an alcohol-infused get-together over the dangers they pose to themselves and others, and with their hands on the steering wheel, few imagine that they’ll be the ones to become part of a car accident statistic.
The good news is that according to a CDC report released in October, instances of teenagers drinking and driving have decreased by 54% since 1991. However, that still leaves 10% of high school teens age 16 and older driving under the influence.
Despite countless lectures we’ve listened to, discussions we’ve had, stories we’ve heard, and videos we’ve watched, many teenagers just aren’t getting the message: Drunk driving kills. Driver’s education classes are doing what they can to prevent drunk driving before it happens, but teenagers are rarely as responsible after receiving their licenses as they are when their driving instructors are in the passenger seat.
It’s vital that parents keep a watchful eye on their young drivers, paying particular attention to teens’ behavior when they arrive home. If they show the slightest signs of drunkenness or irresponsibility, there is cause to take away their independence by taking back their keys.
This is as frustrating to teens as is impounding cell phones, but it serves two purposes—teaching a lesson and saving lives. And parents, if your child ever winds up with a DUI, try to keep that last purpose in mind while you’re paying the fine—or making them pay it. You and the police are on the same side.
Wes Crenshaw, PhD owns Family Psychological Services, LLC. He is board certified in family and couples psychology (ABPP) and author of the books Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens and Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens. Learn about his writing and practice at www.dr-wes.com. Katie Guyot is a senior at Free State High School and is the ninth in a series of teen co-authors featured in Double Take, an advice column for parents and teens published weekly since 2004 in The Lawrence Journal World. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions and advice presented herein are not a substitute for psychological services.