Teen drinking and driving: how to talk to your teens

teen having a drinking and driving talk

There’s never a good reason to drink and drive. In addition to the potentially devastating effects regarding injuries and death, there are other harsh consequences for driving while under the influence. Responsible parents understand this, but their teenagers who are new to driving and might be drinking underage may not. This guide will help you learn why and how to approach talking about teen drinking and driving.

If you’re a parent of teens, this is an issue that probably weighs on your mind. You know that your children are intelligent and responsible, and you want to trust them to make good decisions. However, you also know what it’s like to be a teenager. You remember the pressure of wanting to impress your friends and the false feeling of invincibility that comes along with youth (and hormones).

It’s important to remember that you aren’t powerless in this situation. Although you can’t be there to take care of your teen at all times and make decisions for them, you can educate your teen about the dangers of drunk driving in order to prevent it.

Stopping teens from drinking and driving: what works

Despite the best efforts of parents and safety organizations, it’s not possible to prevent 100% of drunk driving. But keeping teens sober on the road goes a long way toward reducing the number of fatal drunk driving accidents. According to the NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), a whopping 17% of the 10,874 drunk driving deaths in 2017 were caused by teenage drunk drivers.

You don’t want your teenager to be a part of those statistics. The good news is that there are already laws and regulations in place to prevent teenage drunk driving and there’s a lot that parents can do too.

It’s common knowledge that the minimum drinking age is 21 in all U.S. states. What you might not know, however, is that the NHTSA estimates that minimum drinking age laws have saved nearly 32,000 lives from 1975 to 2017. If your teen is looking for a good reason why they aren’t allowed to drink, that’s an incredible one right there!

To further ensure that young drivers are responsible on the road, almost every state uses some form of a graduated driver’s licensing system, which is meant to restrict new drivers’ privileges with their safety (and the safety of others) in mind.

These programs have been shown to reduce fatal teen crashes, and generally include some or all of the following elements:

  • A minimum age of 16 to obtain a learner’s permit
  • A holding period for the learner’s permit of at least one year
  • Restrictions against driving at night — generally, between the hours of 10 p.m.-5 a.m.
  • Placing limits on the number of young passengers teen drivers can have in their vehicle without adult supervision — generally, this number is either just one or none at all
  • A minimum age of 18 to obtain a full driver’s license

Your teenager might initially find these restrictions on their driving annoying, but explaining the rules to them can help. These regulations are important — they quite literally save lives!

As for what you as a parent can do to prevent teen drunk driving, talking to them really can help. It might not seem like they’re listening, but setting clear expectations and fostering open communication can make your teen less likely to drive drunk.

Underage drinking: facts and conversation tips

When talking to your teenager about drinking and driving, you want to be armed with the facts. The fact that any drinking at all is unsafe for teenagers is a good place to start (if your kids don’t drink, they can’t drink and drive).

Start off by discussing the numbers around underage drinking. According to a SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) survey, roughly 24.6 percent of U.S. teens between the ages of 14 and 15 had at least one drink in the year 2019.

Is this percentage higher than we’d like it to be? Absolutely! But, when talking to your teen, think about it this way: less than half of teenagers between the ages of 14 and 15 had at least one drink that year. Your child might have gotten the impression, be it through TV shows or from listening to classmates brag, that everyone their age is drinking and that they’ll be the “weird kid” if they choose to stay sober. Sharing this statistic can help convince them that that’s not true.

You can follow up by reminding them that even if everyone their age was drinking, that still wouldn’t make it safe. Alcohol use can cause long-term negative effects on teenagers’ brains, which are still developing. Even if your teenager is convinced that they can handle the short-term effects of drinking (such as difficulty making good decisions, inability to recognize when their behavior is obnoxious or unsafe, and greater risk of injury from falls or car crashes), make sure they understand the ways that alcohol can damage their brains permanently.

Drinking as a teenager can:

  • Negatively affect the ability to learn and process information
  • Lead to an alcohol use disorder later on in life

Emphasize to your teenager that no matter how fun drinking may seem, it’s physically and mentally unsafe while they are underage.

How to talk to teens about drinking and driving

Once your teen understands the dangers of underage drinking, it will be easier to explain the dangers of drinking and driving. You know this is an important conversation to have with your kids, but it’s normal to be unsure where to start. The best thing you can do is start early and stay consistent.

Start early

It helps to start talking to your kids about drinking and driving well before they’re old enough to do either. Even if your child is only 12 or 13, it’s not too soon to start getting the message across. These don’t have to be long, in-depth conversations at this stage, either — you can simply ask your child if they know why drinking and driving is bad and let the conversation go from there.

Establish open communication

Make sure your child knows that, no matter what they do, they can always call you for help or advice. Emphasize that you will always come and pick them up if they don’t have a safe way to drive home. Let them know that while they may get in some trouble for drinking, you’ll still be proud of them for making the safe decision to stay away from being behind the wheel.

Stay consistent

Your child receives many different messages surrounding alcohol from their friends, TV shows, and advertising. The message they receive from you needs to be consistent: drinking and driving is always wrong. You can reinforce this message by modeling good behavior. Avoid drinking to excess in front of your children. If you are out at a restaurant with your kids, make a point of abstaining from alcohol since you need to drive home.

Teen drinking and driving and DUIs/DWIs

Teenagers can be convicted of a DUI in any state, just like adult drivers. In most states, a DUI is a misdemeanor, which is a criminal offense.

A typical DUI means that the driver had a blood alcohol concentration of more than 0.08%. However, almost every state also employs zero tolerance laws, which make it illegal for teenagers to drive with any alcohol in their system at all, no matter how small the amount.

You should make sure that your teenagers understand the serious consequences of getting a DUI. If they get a DUI, their license will be suspended, they may have to complete community service or substance abuse classes, they may have to have an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle, and they could even face up to a year in jail!

A DUI can affect your child’s educational prospects as well. Many scholarships ask whether the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime, which includes misdemeanors like DUIs. Depending on your state, a DUI can also disqualify your child for certain types of financial aid.

DUIs also carry insurance ramifications. Teenagers are already riskier to insure due to their lack of experience behind the wheel and the possibility that they may drive drunk. Getting a DUI only makes it harder to find affordable insurance coverage.

Final thoughts on teen drinking and driving

No matter how well you prepare, no conversation with your teen about drinking and driving will be perfect. By bringing up the topic, you’re showing your child that you know they are mature enough to have important conversations and guiding them towards making smart, safe decisions. Talking to your teens about underage drinking, drinking and driving, and teen car insurance is part of taking care of them as they’re growing up.

If you’re ready to add your teen driver to your car insurance, contact Elephant and get a quote today.

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