One of the best gifts parents can give their teens during the holidays – and throughout the year – is a clear message about the dangers of drinking, drug use and driving, experts agreed at a recent panel discussion.
"The best message parents can send is through their own patterns of use," according to Paul Coleman, president and CEO of Maryhaven treatment center.
A parent who drinks and drives is not in a good position to discourage their teenagers from emulating this risky behavior, Coleman said.
Alcohol use increases during the holidays among all age groups, commented Coleman at the discussion sponsored by the Franklin County Prevention Network.
Maryhaven is adding two sessions in December for its program for teens caught while driving impaired, something it has not done in the past, Coleman reported.
Couple this increased use with dark and slippery winter roads and it’s a deadly mix.
But parents can have a sobering effect on their children’s habits, even if they don’t realize it, offered Ken Steinman, a researcher with the Ohio State University College of Public Health.
Surveys of young people show that parents are a major influence on their children’s decision whether to drive while impaired, Steinman said.
Other results from the annual survey of 78,000 Franklin County students show the staggering dimensions of the problem.
Among 11th and 12th graders, one in five has driven while drunk or high on marijuana, and one in three has ridden in a car with someone who was impaired.
For those who report drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana at least once a month, the percentage who engaged in this behavior jumped to over 80 percent.
Half of those who drink alcohol regularly said they had driven while drunk in the past year, with most of those reported driving while impaired three or more times.
The problem is even more prevalent with regular pot users, with two-thirds of these teens reporting having driven while they were high.
Encouraging a "designated driver" does not work, since more than half of those who said they had been a designated driver also had driven drunk at some time, Steinman found.
Steinman urged adults and peers to send stronger messages about the risks of driving impaired, particularly about driving while high.
Most teens said they did not think about how their families could be hurt by their behavior, something he believes the kids need to hear.
Panelist Bill Windsor, assistant vice president of safety for Nationwide Insurance, pointed out that traffic crashes are the number one killer of teens.
When alcohol and drugs are included, the crisis is even worse, with 1,600 people between the ages of 16 and 20 killed every year in accidents involving an impaired driver.
"We have to do more than we’re doing today to educate teens," Windsor said.
Nationwide has launched a program to convince teens to take responsibility for their behavior, and to inform parents that they have a role to play, the executive said.
This includes not providing alcohol to teens or their friends. Sixty-five percent of teens report that they have been given alcohol by their parents or their friends’ parents, Windsor said.
That sends the wrong message, telling teens that, if it’s all right to drink at home, it’s all right to drink with friends, Windsor believes.
He also thinks that increased enforcement of the law will help curb the crisis.
"People drink and drive because they know they won’t get caught," Windsor said.
Franklin County Sheriff Jim Karnes highlighted enforcement efforts, such as DUI checkpoints, but added "we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We have to educate our way out of the problem that we, as a society, have allowed to happen."
The sheriff’s department’s efforts along these lines have included Streetsmart, educating teachers, professionals and other adults about what law enforcement officers encounter every day, Karnes said.
Cops and Shops posts deputies posing as store clerks to nab underage people trying to purchase alcohol, and the STOP program keeps the under-21 crowd out of bars.
The department also runs the D.A.R.E. program in 17 central Ohio school districts, Karnes said.
Panelist Keanna Daniels, a student at Metro High School, shared that her grandmother was killed by a drunk driver before she was born, and she tries to get others to stop drinking and using tobacco.
Metro student Fralisia Jefferson said that it’s everyone’s responsibility to send the message to teens that it’s not okay to drink or smoke pot and drive.
"You have to hear it from their parents, you have to hear it from your friends, you have to hear it from everybody," Jefferson said.
How to talk to your teen about driving impaired
•Establish the guidelines about driving impaired and riding with impaired drivers.
•Have clear rules.
•Set specific consequences for breaking them. Be sure and follow-up if the rules are broken.
•Before your child starts driving, write a letter to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (P.O. Box 16520 Columbus, Ohio 43216-6520) revoking your child’s driver’s license if he/she ever drives impaired. Show it to your child and tell him/her that it is his/her choice if you ever have to send the letter.
•Tell your teen that if he/she is ever in a situation where the driver is impaired, call you and you will come pick him/her up, no questions asked that night — or whatever you and your child have agreed upon as the ground rules.
•Tell your teen to always use you as the excuse for not driving impaired or riding with an impaired driver… "My parents would kill me if I ride with you!"
Be a good role model – never drive impaired.
Call Safe and Drug-Free Schools Consortium at 292-9893 for additional information about prevention resources and the Primary Prevention Awareness Attitude and Use Survey.