Drunk Driving After Prom: Perception vs. Reality

Few students drink and drive after prom, according to a new study.

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With prom season upon us, schools are ramping up programs to curb drunk driving—bringing out the wrecked cars, ordering breathalyzers, and hiring security officers. According to a new study, these methods are working.

Just 6 percent of students said they have driven under the influence on prom night, according to a study by Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and Liberty Mutual insurance. That number is still too high, experts say, but according to a 2009 study by Liberty Mutual and SADD, 90 percent of teens felt that their peers would drive drunk after prom.

The practices of requiring students to blow into a breathalyzer before entering prom and holding after-prom functions have helped deter drunk driving, says Stephen Wallace, chairman of SADD.

"I always say that there are a lot of tools in the toolkit that schools need to focus on," he says. "I don't think any one thing is going to make a huge dent, but together, they have a huge influence."

Schools have also required students to sign sobriety contracts and have hired visible police security to discourage students from drinking. Students were more likely to drink and drive on New Year's Eve (10 percent) or during summer breaks (12 percent).

But why do students think their peers are drinking and driving?

"The problem is when you poll teenagers about the behavior of their peers, they tend to wildly over report. They will consistently tell you 95 percent of their peer group is drinking, when only 63 percent of middle school or high school students say they've used alcohol," Wallace says.

The key is educating students about the reality, he adds. "If they think 95 percent of their peer group is drinking, it makes them more likely to start drinking."

[Learn about trends in teenage substance abuse.]

Wallace says parents should bring up drinking in casual conversation. They need to set expectations and establish consequences—without having "the big talk" that can turn students off.

Students' peers have a huge influence over their friends' decisions as well.

"Teen drivers say, pretty convincingly, that if their friends spoke up and said 'don't speed, don't talk on the cell phone,' they would be significantly less likely to do those things. Most teen passengers say they wouldn't speak up because they'd be embarrassed," Wallace says. "We need to empower young people to step up and say 'that's not cool.' Their friends will listen to them."

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