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Using Alcohol and Marijuana Together Increases Risk of Unsafe Driving in Teens

Update Date: Apr 28, 2014 11:23 AM EDT

Teenage drivers are often reminded to be extra careful on the roads. Since they are just starting to get the hang of driving, teens should avoid distractions, such as cell phones and mind-altering substances. Despite the dangers of driving, some teenagers continue to practice unsafe driving, which jeopardizes the safety of fellow drivers, passengers and pedestrians. In a new study, researchers found that teens that drink alcohol and smoke marijuana at the same time are more likely to drive dangerously.

"It's well known that both drinking and other drug use are linked to risky driving," said lead researcher Yvonne Terry-McElrath, of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor, reported in Medical Xpress. "But this suggests that it's not only the frequency of substance use that's important. The patterns of drug use are also related to the risk of unsafe driving."

For this study, Terry-McElrath and colleagues analyzed surveys that reached more than 72,000 high school seniors throughout the United States. The surveys were administered every year as a part of the Monitoring the Future study, which lasted from 1976 to 2011 and was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The researchers reported that teens that used both substances simultaneously were 50 to 90 percent more likely to report that they did not practice safe driving in comparison to fellow teens that did not use the drugs. The rate of teens that used both drugs was 21 percent and 40 percent of these teens had received a traffic ticket or a warning within the past year. 30 percent of the teens that used both drugs at the same time were involved in an accident.

The study did not examine how drug use affected driving. The researchers stated that teens that used these substances could be risk takers, which would be exhibited through their driving. Another explanation could be that these teens get behind the wheel when they are impaired, which increases their risk of accidents.

"Driver's education needs to talk more about the risks, in believable ways-not using inaccurate scare tactics," Terry-McElrath said. "We often hear the message 'Don't drink and drive. But we don't hear much about the risks of using additional substances, either alone or simultaneously with alcohol."

On the positive side, the researchers found that over time, fewer teens are drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. In 1979, only 12 percent of high school seniors stated that they had not used either substance. In 2011, that rate increased to around 33 percent.

The study, "Alcohol and marijuana use patterns associated with unsafe driving among U.S. high school seniors: High use frequency, concurrent use, and simultaneous use," was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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