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How to Talk with Your Teen about Drinking & Driving: Part 1

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Drinking and Driving is a serious offense. There are steps you can take to help your teen understand the consequences involved with their actions behind the wheel so that they make responsible choices.

The number of national alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2018 totaled over 10,500 lives. 980 of those deaths were under the age of 21. In Pennsylvania* alone, these staggering statistics came to a total of 334, with 29 of them being underage fatalities.

Getting Started

Mom and teen daughter sitting on couch looking at phone

As a child is growing up, they are always observing and learning from the behavior of others. At young ages, this is primarily from parents. As the child enters their tween and teenage years, they are also confronted with the addition of peer pressure and media influences. Parents need to not only lead by example but also have open communication about the risks involved with drinking.

First and foremost, it is vital for parents to teach their children how their new age not only comes with exciting privileges, like their driver's license but also heightened responsibility. Yes, it’s great that they will be able to drive - they should be excited about that! But, they also need to understand that same 4,000-pound vehicle which gives them freedom is also capable of killing.

Share The Reality

One very effective approach to talking with your teen to give them an “a-HA” moment is to share about real-life incidents. Sadly, there are always new stories about drinking and driving car crashes. For example, just last month (August 2020), drinking was the suspected cause of this car crash in L.A. where a teen driving a VW Beetle collided with a city bus.

Image of news coverage of crash in LA

Another consequence of drinking and driving are the legal punishments involved with driving impaired. The current PA State Law for a first DUI offense identified as a General Impairment charge has these serious consequences:

  • definite probation, not to exceed six months

  • a $300 fine

  • DUI classes

  • drug and alcohol treatment, if ordered by the Court

Use Research

When you are entering these conversations with your teen, it is also important to remember their brains are not fully developed yet. This is not their fault, but simply a realistic part of life which plays a significant part in their actions during adolescence.

Different parts of the brain develop in different ways and some take longer than others. The Amygdala (AMG) fully matures earlier in our lives, while the prefrontal cortex (PFC) does not fully develop until we are about 24 years old. This is important because it helps to explain why teens are able to comprehend topics better in calm environments, but get confused and easily make mistakes during high-stress situations.

As Dr. Andrew Garner, M.D., FAAP explains: “If you ask a teenager whether it is a good idea to get into a car with friends who are drunk, most would say ‘no way.’ That’s the PFC talking. In calmer moments, the relatively slow PFC is able to think abstractly and see the potentially dire consequences of driving when drunk. But, in the heat of the moment, the relatively more developed AMG screams ‘just do it’ before the PFC knows what happened.”

Dr. Garner also reiterates how brain development is not a complete excuse for teenage errors, but it can assist with explaining them. Talk with your teen about the science of their brain. It might help them look at the topic more clearly and prepare for situations when they need to make responsible decisions.

Stay tuned for Part 2 later this month where we continue the conversation about talking with your teens about drinking and driving.

If you’re looking for more guidance on how to help your teen become a safe, responsible driver, you can check out my other resources:

Learn more about The Parent's Survival Guide for New Teen Drivers


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