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Alcohol, automobiles and youth

  • Underage drinking and driving continue to cause significant numbers of injury and death.
  • Riding with drinking drivers may be even more dangerous for adolescents than drinking and driving.
  • New findings indicate that drinking and driving, and riding with drinking drivers, may be particularly problematic among Latino youth.

Although the message of "Don't drink and drive" has been a common refrain for the past two decades, much less attention has been given to the risks of riding with a drinking driver. A study in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research examines ethnic differences among adolescents who engage in driving after drinking (DD) and riding with drinking drivers (RWDD), finding there is a distinct need to direct prevention efforts toward Latino youth.

"Adolescent alcohol use, driving after drinking, and riding with drinking drivers are significant public health problems," said Samantha Walker, associate research scientist at the Prevention Research Center and corresponding author for the study. "Consequences can include automobile crashes, physical injury, and possible death."

In 2000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 21 percent of young drivers who were killed in crashes were intoxicated with blood alcohol concentrations of 0.10 g/dl or greater. Among those drivers who had been drinking, three percent were involved in property damage-only crashes, five percent were involved in crashes resulting in injury, and 22 percent were involved in crashes resulting in fatality. RWDD is a less-recognized practice than DD, yet may be even more dangerous for adolescents.

Drinking and Driving

"The percentage of adolescents riding with drinking drivers is frighteningly high, with approximately half of all youth reporting such experiences in the past 12 months," said Brenda A. Miller, a senior scientist at the Prevention Research Center. "This study clarifies that a greater proportion of our adolescents are at risk for injury or death due to riding with drinking drivers as compared to driving under the influence."

Researchers used random-digit dialing procedures to recruit 1,534 15- to 20-year-olds (839 females, 695 males) living in California to participate in a telephone survey. Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans were oversampled to allow cross-group comparisons.

"Our findings indicate that DD and RWDD may be particular problems for Latinos," said Walker. "That is, Latino youth appear more at risk for these behaviors than are other youth at similar levels of alcohol consumption." The study found low prevalence rates of DD and RWDD among Asian American youth, which may indicate the presence of protective factors ? whether social or environmental ? at work within the Asian American community.

"These results suggest that some ?ground work' needs to be done to better understand why Latino youth are more vulnerable to these risks and whether our prevention message needs to be presented in a different manner that would be better heard by our Latino youth," said Miller. "We need to be cautious, however, about concluding that all Latino youth are more susceptible because the findings do not support this conclusion. Only when we account for drinking behaviors and driving practices do we see an increased risk for Latino youth."

Miller added that although many parents likely already know that children who drink frequently are at higher risk for either DD or RWDD, they may not know that risky driving and the number of days driven are also related to an increased risk for DD or RWDD.

High Risk Behavior

"Risky driving is probably part of a constellation of high-risk behaviors," said Miller. "The total number of days driven may be related to control or ownership of a car that provides the means to engage in drinking and driving more readily. We know that parents who monitor their children are less likely to have children who engage in alcohol or drug use. However, monitoring teenagers' behavior is increasingly more complex, especially when the access and availability of vehicles adds to freedom and independence from parental controls."

Walker said that future research will explore some of these complexities, specifically, "clarifying the relationships among drinking patterns, driving practices, social and environmental influences such as drinking locations, and DD and RWDD, particularly among Latino youth."

Miller suggested that future studies also explore strategies to help adolescents avoid those situations in which drinking and driving occur, especially scenarios in which they are passengers riding with a drinking driver.

"For many adolescents, the automatic loss of their license or a zero-tolerance policy of any alcohol use while driving provide a powerful external control over DD behavior," said Miller. "However, the issue of RWDD is not so easily addressed. Our prevention strategies should make it easier for adolescents to negotiate difficult social situations that may emerge in their lives, such as what to do when a friend that drove you to a party has drunk too much. Particularly important is the need to provide constructive strategies rather than messages that simply admonish against such behavior. And ultimately, providing adolescents with an ability to handle these difficult social problems will provide them, hopefully, with the strengths they need to negotiate other social problems in their lives."

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