One In Five Teens Reports Driving Under Marijuana Influence, Study

February 22, 2012

What should serve as a wake-up call to parents of teen drivers comes in the form of a new study that shows one in five teens (19 percent) reports driving while under the influence of marijuana.

The most recent study of teen driving behavior and attitudes is from Liberty Mutual Insurance and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), and has been conducted regularly since 2000.

Teen Driver - photo courtesy of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Teen Driver - photo courtesy of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

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Not only is marijuana use up among teen drivers, according to the study findings, but it is significantly more prevalent than alcohol use among this driving population. The study found that 13 percent said they had driven after drinking.

But even more frightening is the dangerous misconception of many teens that marijuana use doesn’t hamper their driving. More than one-third (36 percent) of surveyed teens who reported driving after using marijuana said they did not consider it a form of distracted driving. Another scary study finding is that 19 percent of teens didn’t consider alcohol distractive to their driving.

One key finding, according to Glenn Greenberg, Liberty Mutual spokesperson, is that driving under the influence appears to be more prevalent with males than females. In fact, male drivers are twice as likely to say that they “often” or “very often” drive under the influence of marijuana (10 percent) compared to their female counterparts (5 percent). The current study showed a  similar finding for alcohol use: male teens are significantly more likely to say that they “often” or “very often” drive under the influence of alcohol (4 percent) compared to their female counterparts (1 percent).

How does marijuana affect teen driving ability? According to Stephen Wallace, SADD senior advisor for policy, research and education, “Marijuana affects memory, judgment and perception and can lead to poor decisions when a teen under the influence of this or other drugs gets behind the wheel of a car.

“What keeps me up at night is that this data reflects a dangerous trend toward the acceptance of marijuana and other substances compared to our study of teens conducted just two years ago,” said Wallace.

Wallace was referring to the 2009 study which found that 78 percent of teens said that marijuana use was “very” or “extremely” distracting to their driving. In the current study, only 70 percent of teens had this high level of concern.

One reason marijuana use may be on the rise among teens is the increased public discussion of medical marijuana. The 2011 Monitoring the Future study found that marijuana use among eighth to twelfth graders is at its highest level in 30 years.

Other study findings

There are some other study findings that are particularly revealing:

  • Friends play a significant role. Most teen drivers, 90 percent, said they would stop driving under the influence of marijuana if they were asked to by their passengers. And 94 percent said they’d curtail driving if they’d consumed alcohol, providing their passengers asked them to.
  • Teen passengers less concerned about marijuana than alcohol. Only 72 percent of passengers would speak up to the driver about using marijuana and then driving, compared with 87 percent who said they’d ask the driver to not attempt to drive after drinking.
  • Girls more likely to speak up. In both circumstances (marijuana and alcohol use by the driver), the study found that girls were far more likely to speak up than boys.
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