Youths Often Endangered From Situations in Which Drinking and Driving Mix

THE HARTFORD COURANT

It's not just bad youngsters who are going to find themselves in danger from drinking and driving. Good youngsters are, too. Anybody's children.

Parents don't know how often their children are exposed to dangerous situations that mix driving and drinking, says Dr. James Farrow, who has studied the issue. And parents aren't doing enough, says Farrow, director of the division of adolescent medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.

His research, conducted in 1987 and 1988, surveyed 192 young drivers in Seattle-area public high schools. It found a high degree of alcohol and drug use with driving among teen-agers. The findings, he says, apply to "virtually any suburban area of any city in the country."

Among his findings:

--After using alcohol and drugs, youngsters drive even though they know they are impaired.

--Driving while intoxicated is seen as a normal part of social life among teen-agers. Driving around with friends is a social event in itself.

--Dangerous driving incidents are characterized by reckless intent, driving late at night and having friends in the car, with alcohol or drugs being used.

--The most dangerous driving takes place after a party, followed by driving after spending time with friends at one's home, or theirs.

--Highest rates of driving after drinking are among teen-agers who have had their licenses less than six months.

--Many teen-agers think beer is less intoxicating than other kinds of alcohol.

--Boys are more at risk for driving dangerously than girls, who are more often passengers in dangerous driving incidents.

Teen-agers can be well aware of the dangers, Farrow says, but often don't believe that it can happen to them. Many passengers in dangerous driving situations later told him that though they were scared at the time, they would ride again with the same driver under the same circumstances.

"That's the issue that's special to the adolescent driving problem--they feel invulnerable," he says.

Farrow, who recently spoke about his research at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Seattle, says the problem needs to be fought in several ways, including such student efforts as the "contract for life" and Students Against Drunk Drivers campaigns, legal deterrents and education.

An educational program Farrow and colleagues developed, conducted in the Seattle area, tells parents what situations and personality characteristics most put teen-agers at risk. In brainstorming sessions, parents then try to come up with strategies to reduce danger for their own children.

"Parents try to do the same thing some state legislators try to do--make driving provisional," he says. "They try to restrict how late (teen-agers) stay out, how many kids they're allowed to take in the car. They have sanctions if they find out (teen-agers) are not wearing seat belts."

Because research has shown teen-agers are more likely to be in dangerous driving situations Fridays and Saturdays after 10 p.m. and in the summer, parents can consider curfews accordingly. Because having friends in the car is a risk, they can set limits about who or how many passengers will be allowed.

A teen-ager's personality also has to be considered. Research suggests that youths who are more likely to be involved in drunk-driving incidents are more likely to have troubles with anger or hostility or a feeling of powerlessness and have recently dealt with a stressful change (such as moving to a new home or failing a grade). Other risk factors are a lack of responsibility, thinking of the car as a status symbol and having a poor relationship with the family.

Farrow also found that teen-agers were less likely to be involved in dangerous driving when using their own cars, rather than the family car.

Farrow advises parents to have a "contract for life" agreement with teen-agers, in which parents pledge to provide a ride home with no harassment when their children are intoxicated, or would otherwise drive home with a friend who has been drinking. "If used properly, it promotes communication," he said.

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