Driver Education: How Drugs Affect Driving – Illegal Prescription Drugs

In 2007, 4.4 million teens reported that they had abused a prescription drug at some point in their lives, according to the Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS). Abuse of prescription drugs by teens is on the rise, and parents need to be vigilant to keep their teens from using. Many teens who illegally use prescription drugs get them from their own homes, though they can also obtain them from friends and the internet.

Many teens use prescription drugs to get high, but they may also use them to relieve anxiety and stress, sleep better, improve concentration and increase alertness. Even teens who stay away from street drugs are vulnerable; a “good kid” might take amphetamines so she can study longer and keep her grades up. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, adolescents are more likely than young adults to become dependent on prescription medicines.

But the risks of using prescription medications are not well understood by many teens, according to PATS; about four in ten teens surveyed perceived prescription drugs used without a prescription to be safer than street drugs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy says that when teens abuse prescription drugs, they often characterize their use of the drugs as “responsible,” “controlled” or “safe.”

Illegal use of prescription drugs is far from safe, however, particularly if a teen takes prescription drugs and drives. The most commonly abused prescription drugs are painkillers, tranquilizers, sedatives, and stimulants. All of these drugs act on systems in the brain that control driving behavior and impact motor skills and thus can lead to impaired driving ability. Teens often abuse prescription drugs at “pharm parties;” each teen brings prescription drugs from home, the drugs are combined in a big bowl (called “trail mix”), and each teen consumes a handful; after the party, teens whose judgment is impaired often get rides home from other impaired teens.

In addition to the physical danger to their own children, parents whose teens use illegal prescription drugs and drive incur huge financial risk. Though the level of liability varies by state, parents can be held liable for the negligent acts of minor drivers. If a motor vehicle crash that results in injury or death occurs and a court finds that a parent should have known, or knew, that their teen was using illegal drugs or drinking alcohol while driving, the financial consequences of a lawsuit could be devastating.

Ensuring that teens don’t take advantage of prescription drugs in your household requires a high level of alertness. Consider storing prescription drugs in a small lockbox, keeping a count of prescription drugs, checking your teen’s room and recreational areas regularly for pill bottles, and checking the computer’s internet history to make sure teens aren’t shopping for drugs online.

Talking to teens about illegal prescription drug use is important too. Several studies indicate that teens are much less likely to use alcohol or any other drug when parents have consistently expressed their feelings on the issue.

Tips for Teens: Safe Fourth of July Driving

Though teens cannot legally celebrate the Fourth of July with alcohol, teen drivers still have to contend with intoxicated drivers on the road. Summer is always a dangerous time for teen drivers; they are at particular risk on holiday weekends.

Risk factors for teens on the road during holiday weekends include:
-Due to their limited driving experience, teens often have difficulty handling emergency situations; for example, they might try to pass a driver who keeps drifting into their lane.
-Teens may have trouble recognizing when other drivers might be impaired and neglect to allow an adequate space cushion between their vehicle and the vehicles of those drivers. For example, they may tailgate a vehicle traveling far below the speed limit.
-Teens often have poor impulse control, which could lead them into playing traffic games with aggressive or impaired drivers, such as racing from one traffic light to another.
-Teens may be so preoccupied with their own driving that they fail to notice the actions of other drivers.

Here are some tips on how to recognize an impaired driver:
-their vehicle is straddling two lanes
-they have a close call, such as nearly hitting a parked car
-they make wide, clumsy turns
-they are traveling well below the speed limit (10 mph or more)
-they are following too closely
-they are braking erratically or stopping at inappropriate places (such as at an intersection with a green traffic light)
-their headlights aren’t on at night, or they leave their turn signal on for a prolonged time

Teens can use defensive driving techniques for safe holiday driving:
-Always wear your safety belt. This is your best defense against impaired drivers.
-Obey the speed limit. Driving too fast means you have less space to respond to hazards.
-Avoid being distracted from watching the road by noisy passengers, loud music, or using a cell phone.
-Maintain an adequate space cushion on all sides between your vehicle and other vehicles. If you notice someone driving erratically, increase your space cushion.
-Observe the behavior of other drivers, but keep your eyes moving; don’t get so distracted that you miss another hazard.

Teen drivers can report possible impaired drivers to local law enforcement, but parents should make sure their teens understand that they must pull off the road and stop before using a cell phone.


Driver Education: Commentary Driving

For most parents who are teaching their teens to drive, using commentary driving seems to make perfect sense. But like many other simple tasks, commentary driving is not always easy to do well, and if done improperly, can be frustrating for both the parent and teen.

Since commentary driving involves speaking out loud while driving, parents should model it for teens well before they allow the teen behind the wheel of the vehicle. Teens are likely to feel self-conscious about the process (and parents may, too), so several lessons just on the method itself will be helpful. Parents should emphasize the fundamentals; for example, taking note of the speed limit every time they enter a new street and watching for pedestrians in every crosswalk.

Just as they would with any other driving lesson, parents should begin practicing commentary driving in a relatively simple driving environment and progress to more complex situations, such as driving on the expressway. Each lesson in a new driving environment should be preceded by a demonstration by the parent of commentary driving in that environment; this allows teens to absorb some of the new hazards they will encounter from the safety of the passenger seat.

One purpose of commentary driving is to focus the driver’s attention on her or his thoughts, which in turn helps to maintain a high level of alertness. This is particularly helpful with teens, who may be struggling to overcome the excitement of finally getting to drive enough to focus on the process. It’s also helpful to parents, who otherwise might experience great anxiety as they wonder whether or not their teen has noticed hazards ahead, such as other drivers drifting out of their lanes or following too closely or cars parked on the side of the street.

While commentary driving involves talking while driving, the content of the discussion should be specific and targeted to the driving environment. The driver maintains a running list of observations and actions. An example of commentary driving is: “Approaching intersection….green light….car in oncoming lane waiting to turn left….checking mirrors….light still green….checking intersection….crossing intersection….”. Comments that are general, i.e., “checking ahead,” are not helpful because they don’t increase the awareness level of the driver. The person commenting should say what they see and how they plan to handle what they see.

Parents should resist the temptation to interject into teens’ comments unless absolutely necessary. Questions such as, “What would it mean if that traffic light was yellow?” and “How many seconds should your following distance be if it starts raining right now?” distract teens from what’s in front of them and teach them to rely on someone else’s observations instead of making their own. Parents should make note of any discussion points on a log and cover them at the end of the lesson when the vehicle is parked.

If teens get distracted and stop commenting, parents should encourage them to return to the process with general comments like, “Keep going; tell me everything you’re seeing and what you’re going to do.” When teens repeatedly stop commenting, they may be tired or overwhelmed, signaling that the lesson should end. After the lesson, parents can point out that when drivers stop commenting, their level of alertness goes down.

Parents can also ask questions that help teens understand how commentary driving works after the lesson is over. For example, ask, “Could you practice commentary driving while talking on your cell phone? How do you think talking on a cell phone affects a person’s driving?”

Commentary driving can be an effective driver education tool if used properly; parents who invest time and energy in the process help their teens to be better, safer drivers.

Driver Education: How Drugs Affect Driving – Inhalants

Most parents worry that their teens will get involved in illegal drugs, but some parents are unaware of one of the main determinants of whether teens will experiment with drugs – availability. Because they are legal, easily accessible household products, inhalants are one of the most commonly abused drug categories. According to the 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, 4.6 million teens have tried inhalants. After alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana, inhalants are the most frequently-used drug by teens. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, inhalants are one of the first substances abused by children. Though addiction is rare, inhalants can act as a gateway drug when they are replaced with other accessible substances as children age and chase the next high.

Inhalants include solvents, such as paint thinner, gasoline, and glue; gases, such as butane, propane, and nitrous oxide; and aerosol propellants. Experimentation could occur with any household product containing chemicals – spray paint, cleaning products, felt-tip marker fluid, vegetable oil spray, correction fluid. Inhalants are “sniffed” from an open container or “huffed” from a rag soaked in the substance and held to the face. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, most inhalants cause a quick high similar to alcohol intoxication. The intoxication from inhalants typically only lasts a few minutes, so users often inhale repeatedly over a period of several hours, increasing the risk of adverse effects.

Effects of inhalants include:

  • stimulation
  • loss of inhibition
  • slurred speech
  • loss of motor coordination
  • headache
  • nausea or vomiting
  • wheezing
  • loss of sensation
  • loss of consciousness
  • muscle cramps and weakness
  • memory impairment
  • weight loss
  • depression
  • damage to the cardiovascular and nervous systems
  • sudden death, even with first-time use

Because abuse of inhalants often occurs at a friend’s house or in out-of-the-way places such as in empty parking lots and on dead-end streets, and because driving is viewed as a fun activity by teens, the danger of inhalants can be compounded when teens use inhalants and drive. The intoxication caused by inhalants can cause the same problems as driving under the influence of alcohol – impaired judgment and decision-making, risky driving behavior, and poor motor coordination.

Ensuring that teens don’t experiment with inhalants requires a high degree of vigilance on the part of the parent. Inhalants are cheap, legal and easy to obtain, often from the teen’s own home. Teens are often not aware of the risk of using inhalants, reasoning that they are harmless household products and that they are only going to be used occasionally. In fact, the 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study showed that from 2001 to 2005, the number of teens who perceived inhalant use as risky decreased significantly.

Parents shouldn’t assume that if they don’t mention inhalants, it won’t occur to teens to use them. At any given time, a teen can be presented with the idea by a friend. In fact, since inhalants are often the first drug used by children, they should be one of the first drug categories parents discuss. Make sure teens know that even common household goods, such as cleaning products, can be harmful – show them the warnings on the labels about using them in well-ventilated areas, and ask them to explain how they think intentionally inhaling the fumes could harm someone. Talk about the risk of sudden death from sniffing or huffing, and ask teens to talk about how they would feel if they were with a friend who died from inhalant abuse. Opportunities for reinforcing the risks of inhalant abuse are everywhere – in driver training courses, in health education classes, in newspaper articles, and on television shows.

Restricting the availability of popular substances is also important. Clean out the garage and properly dispose of leftover chemical products. Those that must be kept should be locked in a cabinet or shed. Parents may wish to help teens avoid temptation by limiting or banning aerosol spray products such as deodorants, hairspray, fabric protector, and whipped cream. Keep a close watch on teens’ bedrooms and recreational areas for empty containers or smelly rags, especially in odd places, like under a bed or chair or in the back of a closet. Parents who suspect inhalant abuse must take action immediately.

expressway at night

How Teens Can Drive Safely on the Expressway

A complete driver-training program includes lessons on all types of streets and highways, both night and day, in a variety of weather and traffic conditions. But many teens get the majority, if not all, of their driver training on familiar roads close to home. Some young drivers do not make their first expressway trip until after they are licensed and driving on their own. This is a high-risk method for teens to gain driving experience, because:

  • Young drivers who don’t have freeway experience have trouble controlling vehicles traveling at high speeds
  • Teens have minimal experience in dealing with emergency driving situations, particularly at high speeds
  • When expressways are unfamiliar to drivers, they spend more time searching the driving scene for directional signs and landmarks
  • Teens often aren’t aware of the level of risk on interstates, so they may continue other risky driving behaviors, such as non-use of seat belts and allowing distractions such as loud music and noisy passengers
  • Though expressways have a low incidence of collisions, the crashes that do occur have high injury severity rates because the higher speeds exponentially increase the amount of force involved in the crash

Commentary driving is an excellent way to train teens to drive safely on the expressway. With commentary driving, teens maintain a running dialogue of their progress – what they notice as they observe the roadway and what actions they will take: “The car in front of me is slowing down, so I’m slowing down and checking my following distance. My exit is coming up in one mile, so I’m putting on my turn signal, checking my mirrors and blind spot, and moving into the exit lane. The exit ramp has a posted speed limit of 45 mph, so I’m slowing to that speed. It’s starting to rain, so I’m increasing my following distance.”

Commentary driving forces the driver to use critical thinking skills to make driving decisions. The fact that the driver’s observations are verbalized is comforting to the person (typically a parent) teaching the teen to drive, because it allows the instructor to follow the teen’s thought process and quickly make corrections without lecturing, which teens tend to tune out anyway.

Teens often feel awkward about commentary driving, so it is helpful to model it for them prior to beginning driving lessons. This also allows parents to perfect the process and to see the roadway with new eyes, thus relating better to the beginning driver.

From a practical standpoint, it is obviously important for teens to work up to practicing driving on the expressway. The first several lessons should occur during non-peak hours on dry roads during the daytime. Introduce one variable – nighttime hours, rainy weather, rush-hour traffic – at a time, and ensure the teen is completely comfortable with each before progressing to the next.

The following training tips will help teens be safer drivers on the freeway:

  • Make sure the teen understands that though traffic on the expressway can seem predictable because everyone is moving in the same direction at approximately the same speed, surprises can occur and drivers must be ready to deal with them at all times.
  • Use commentary driving to make sure teens know how to identify interstate interchanges, signs, lane markings, and speed limits.
  • Help teens learn how to enter and exit expressways properly: searching the road ahead, signaling, evaluating other drivers’ speed, calculating the amount of available space, adjusting speed to the flow of traffic, identifying exits early, and following exit ramp speed limits. Practice entering and exiting the freeway at different points to broaden the young driver’s experience.
  • Include information in the lesson plan on how high speeds affect following distance, stopping distance, and the physics of motor vehicle crashes. To avoid overloading the young driver, provide these lessons off the road, or have teens take a driver safety course and report what they learned.
    • Help teens understand how the steering needs of vehicles change at high speeds; excessive steering can cause drivers to lose control on the expressway.
    • Reinforce that driving must be taken seriously; many traffic games occur on freeways. Make sure teen drivers maintain a steady lane position in the right lane, except when passing, and refrain from being competitive with other drivers.
    • Talk about the dangers of the expressway, such as crosswinds when traveling on bridges or through mountain passes, other drivers tailgating them, and sharing the road with large trucks, and how to handle each one.