Youth Culture Window

Teens Driving Under the Influence

Dynamic ImageMany teens drive under enormous amounts of distraction – loud music, friends, and texting. But new reports claim that half of teens and young adult drivers who die in car wrecks have one thing in common.

They’d been using alcohol or marijuana (or both) prior to getting behind the wheel.

Sipping, Smoking, and Swerving
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that “motor vehicle crashes” are the leading cause of teen deaths in the US. For example, in 2011, one of the latest years for which data is available, 2,650 teenagers were killed in car accidents…and almost 300,000 more were treated in ERs for injuries sustained while in a vehicle.

That’s a lot of premature funerals…and unnecessary physical therapy.

And according to one new study, half of that carnage would be completely avoided if teens didn’t use alcohol and marijuana before driving. The study, conducted by Columbia University, used information collected on 16- to 25-year-old victims from states where toxicology reports are routine in the event of a car crash. Here are some of the key findings:


  • 50.3% of 16- to 25-year-olds killed in car accidents “were drunk or high [or both] at the time of their fatal crashes”
  • 57.3% of 18- to 25-year-olds had some sort of “mind-altering substance, usually alcohol” in their systems at the time of their death
  • Those over the age of 21 (legal drinking age) were more likely than younger fatalities to have used marijuana and alcohol before driving

These kinds of numbers usually lead to finger-pointing, and interestingly enough, the same week this report from Columbia was released, another study on teens and drinking performed by Dartmouth College found that “exposure to an alcohol ad on TV can increase the likelihood young people will pick up a drink.”

Their study was based on surveys of 2,541 young people aged 15-23 and focused on how well they recognized beer commercials in comparison to how likely they were to engage in alcohol consumption. Though The Wall Street Journal reported that the findings were contested by The Distilled Spirits Council – big shocker, right? – researchers discovered “that the more receptive underage participants were to the alcohol ads, the more likely they were to start drinking.”

We don’t live in a nation where alcohol and marijuana are likely to be curbed. In fact, with 23 states now allowing marijuana use – for medicinal and/or recreational purposes – it’s probably going to be a problem that’s only going to get worse.

Providing a Better Influence
Fortunately, parents and youth workers aren’t forced to the sidelines as spectators in this dilemma. Truth be told, they are both poised to make a difference in the lives of teens on this issue like no one else. Here’s what you can do.


  1. Talk with your teen about these dangers. Yeah, we always say talk with your teen about “fill-in-the-blank” issue…but with good cause: it works! For example, researchers from the University of Buffalo have found that “consistent and sustained” efforts by parents can impact a teenager’s use of alcohol. Craig Colder, a psychologist at the university, claims, “What our data is suggesting is that you can’t control all of your kids’ decisions, but you can help them to make good choices in situations where alcohol is available.” In other words, parents who regularly talk with their kids about alcohol use have influence that extends past the end of the conversation. So talk, and talk often!
  2. Help your teen develop a biblical worldview. It’s a fairly well documented fact that teenagers who lead a religious/spiritual life tend to reject the temptation of alcohol and drugs more often than teens who don’t maintain a spiritual life. Why that’s the case, exactly, isn’t so well documented. So, researchers at the University of Florida (Go Gators!) recently compiled data on the subject and determined that having a spiritual worldview – seeing the world from a spiritual perspective – helps teens avoid substance abuse because “most religions offer guidance for everyday behavior that strengthens adolescents’ moral grounding.” Granted, not all religious worldviews are equal; we at The Source for Youth Ministry can only recommend a biblical(Christian) worldview, which is precisely why we provide totally free resources like MOVIE CLIP DISCUSSIONS and MUSIC DISCUSSIONS to help you engage your teenagers in Bible-centered conversations. Use them as often as you can.

Today’s teenagers are under many different kinds of influences, not just that of controlled substances. But their lives will be positively impacted if parents and youth workers will make sure their influence is the strongest.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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