WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE DRIVE WHILE UNDER THE INFLUENCE?
Most often, the reason people drive drunk is that they attempt to evaluate their abilities and make choices when they are already intoxicated—a time when they are least capable of making those evaluations and choices. Others falsely believe that they are capable of safely driving drunk and will neither crash their car nor be detected by the police, particularly if they are only driving short distances. These false beliefs help explain why so many people crash their cars and/or get arrested for DUI so close to their homes.
Research in the area of risk perception shows that when people engage in high-risk behaviors that do NOT lead to immediate consequences, it tends to reinforce the illusion of safety of that behavior. When teens (or adults) engage in high-risk behaviors—such as unprotected sex, drug/alcohol use, not wearing seat belts, driving while intoxicated, speeding or reckless driving— and nothing bad happens as a result, there is a tendency to view that behavior as safer than it really is. And the more a person engages in the behavior, the more the illusion of safety is reinforced.
WHY ARE TEENAGERS AT A HIGH RISK FOR INVOLVEMENT IN MOTOR VEHICLE CRASHES, EVEN IF THEY ARE SOBER?
For most adults, the skills required to operate a motor vehicle have been practiced so often they become automatic. Teenagers are new to driving, and are still learning many driving skills, such as the awareness/anticipation of potential hazards, negotiating turns, judging safe speeds and distances required to stop safely.
In addition to lack of experience behind the wheel, teenage drivers are prone to distractions, such as having many friends in the car, listening to loud music, texting while driving, and preoccupation with other issues without the automatic and unconscious skills found in experienced drivers.
Teenagers are also prone to excessive risk-taking such as speeding, racing, or attempting other dangerous maneuvers in the car. Social pressures can increase the likelihood of reckless driving, particularly when kids attempt to show off or seek attention from others (either inside or outside of the car).
Research is confirming what many adults intuitively know: teenagers have difficulty foreseeing consequences, tend to be impulsive and reckless, lack inhibitions (especially when experiencing social pressures or seeking attention), and tend to have difficulty perceiving and evaluating risk and conceptualizing their mortality.
These factors all conspire to increase the likelihood of motor vehicle crashes caused by teen drivers. The chances of motor vehicle crashes increase exponentially with the addition of other factors—such as fatigue, emotional reactivity, and most importantly drug and alcohol use—due to their significant effects on judgment, perception, coordination, and reaction time.
WHY ARE TEENAGERS MORE LIKELY TO DRIVE WHILE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF ALCOHOL OR OTHER DRUGS?
The explanation for why teens are more likely to drive while intoxicated reflect many of the factors discussed above regarding the reasons teens are more likely to be involved in motor vehicle crashes in general. These include:
A significant amount of research on the developing brain shows that in adolescence, particularly from puberty until the late teens and early twenties, the connections within the frontal lobes and between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain are not fully established. This helps explain why adolescents have difficulty in the following key areas: foreseeing consequences, postponing gratification and controlling impulses, weighing potential payoffs versus personal risks, and negotiating social pressures. The use of drugs and alcohol significantly exacerbates these difficulties.
Adolescents are highly sensitive to social norms, expectations, status and reputation. Peers often receive positive reinforcement when taking chances and engaging in high-risk behaviors, and the expectation of social rewards (even if based on erroneous assumptions) can lead to taking excessive risks. Teens also tend to engage in rebellious behaviors that flout conventional standards. Some adolescents drive drunk in a deliberate act of defiance of the law and societal expectations.
Alcohol and other drug effects
When intoxicated, teens (like adults) make the decision to drive because they are making the assessment regarding their ability to drive when the ability to make this assessment is impaired. So not only do alcohol and other drugs directly impair one’s ability to drive; they impair one’s ability to accurately assess their level of impairment.
Remember that teens are drivers with minimal driving experience. Many are also new drinkers, unaware of their limits or the specific effects of alcohol or other drugs on their systems. This creates a combined risk for teenagers who drink and drive.