Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Yes, a parent's DUI will influence the child's drunk-driving habits

December 6, 2011 - 01:08 PM
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Drive steady. (Photo: flickr/davidsledge)

The U.S. may have reduced its drunk driving in the past half century, but we've hardly extinguished the problem. A new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confirms some bad numbers and suggests a new connection between the drunk-driving habits of parents and their teenage children.

Is it so surprising that children would be under the influence of their parents? No. But data now shows just what this connection looks like. The following chart, released today, breaks down the SAMHSA data from 2002 to 2009 in a report called "Data Spotlight: Adolescents Living with a Parent Who Drives Under the Influence Are at Increased Risk for Driving Under the Influence Themselves." What yields the data is an annual survey of more than 67,000 people, which lends great statistic credibility to the numbers. SAMHSA kicks off their announcement with a startling wake-up call for anyone who doubts the severity: "Overall 11.5 percent of all youths aged 16 to 17 drove under the influence of drugs or alcohol in the past year."

Yikes. That translates into more than 900,000 teenagers on the road. Last year, the Center for Disease Control reports that there were more than 11,000 fatalities as a result of drunk driving.

The real substance of the new report concerns how parents influence their children. Here's a chart that breaks down these childrens' responses by whether or not their mother and whether or not their father had received a DUI before:

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: SAMHSA)

These are some disturbing and yet terribly sensible correlations. SAMHSA lays out what we can see clearly in the chart above:

18.3 percent of 16 and 17 year olds living with a mother who drove under the influence of drugs or alcohol also drove under the influence – as opposed to 10.9 percent of the adolescents who lived with a mother who had not driven under the influence. The difference was even more pronounced for fathers -- 21.4 percent of adolescents living with a father who drove under the influence also drove under the influence, as opposed to 8.4 percent of adolescents living with a father who did not drive under the influence.

Fathers would seem to have the biggest influence on how their children behave in regard in driving drunk. No big surprise. They're also apparently the biggest culprit. A CDC report from earlier this fall suggested that four out of five drunk-driving incidents involve men. I doubt the connection is directly related to the drunk-driving arrest of the parent so much as the broader correlation of behaviors and attitudes that go along with it, an ease and comfort with enjoying a few drinks and then hitting the road.

Although this study takes a national look at teenagers and parents, I suspect its significance is quite high in the District. Teenagers living in D.C., by all accounts, suffer from a great degree of stress and, according to Metro Transit Police, create the most problems on the Metro. Speaking broadly, the riders from ages 10 to 22 or so commit about three out of every four crimes.

Among the many factors that shape these lives is parenting. A nurturing and stable home life means everything in a young person's development. This good behavior includes good transportation habits from which the child can model — and this absolutely means no drunk driving. SAMHSA has provided an "action plan" for parents to talk with their children about underage drinking, which you can review here. Our safety and well-being as a society depends on paying attention to this.

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