U.S. teens often ride with impaired drivers

(Reuters Health) - In a U.S. study, about one-third of young people just out of high school admitted to riding with a driver who was under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs.

That raises their already high risk of being in a crash - not just as a passenger, but later as a driver, too, researchers say.

“Our previous study indicated that exposure to alcohol and drug-impaired driving (meaning riding with a drunk or otherwise impaired driver) was an independent risk factor for teenage DWI,” or driving while impaired, said lead author Kaigang Li, a community and behavioral health researcher at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Young impaired drivers are at even higher risk for crashes than impaired adults, Li and colleagues note in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Teen drivers are 17 times more likely than adults to die in a crash when they have a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit, they write.

Li’s team analyzed data collected in 2013-2014 in two annual surveys, each of which included more than 2,000 young people one or two years after high school graduation.

Participants provided background information about themselves and answered questions about experiences with driving and riding while impaired. These included whether in the past year they had used drugs or alcohol themselves, and whether they had ridden in a vehicle with a peer or older adult who had used alcohol, marijuana or other illicit drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, anabolic steroids, LSD, opiates, glue or solvents.

“Whereas driving drunk has become more and more stigmatized since the 1980s, the social prescriptions against riding with (other types of) impaired driver are not as strong,” said Jennifer Schwartz, a sociology researcher at Washington State University in Pullman, who wasn’t involved in the study. “As researchers, we understand less about why someone would choose to ride with an impaired driver.”

In the first survey, 25 percent of young women and 22 percent of young men said they had ridden with someone impaired by drugs or alcohol. In the second survey, that rose to 33 percent.

The impaired driver was more likely to be a peer, rather than an older adult. And binge drinking - defined as consuming four to five drinks or more in a two-hour span - and marijuana use were both associated with a higher likelihood of driving with an impaired friend.

Marijuana users were twice as likely as non-marijuana users to ride with an alcohol-impaired peer, 11 times as likely to ride with a marijuana-impaired peer and more than nine times as likely to ride with an illicit-drug-impaired peer, researchers found.

People are influenced by those around them, Li said, so it makes sense that young people are more likely to be impacted by friends, peers or other influencers in their life.

“Our children are learning behaviors from their surroundings. Their learning experience and the behaviors they are exposed to are leading to their attitudes toward their own behavior . . . when deciding to engage in a behavior or not.”

The findings that teenagers are riding with impaired peer drivers, he noted, are not very surprising. But, he added, “the point is how parents may increase their monitoring knowledge about what our kids are doing and what strategies can be employed to reduce their risk behaviors.”

SOURCE: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, online March 19, 2018.