Youth and Impaired Driving

Road crashes continue to be leading cause of death among teenagers.

The statistics for motor vehicle crashes and impairment-related crashes among young drivers are alarming.

  • Young people have the highest rates of traffic death and injury per capita among all age groups and the highest death rate per kilometer driven among all drivers under 75 years of age. More 19-year-olds die or are seriously injured than any other age group.
  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 16 to 25 year olds, and alcohol and/or drugs are a factor in 55% of those crashes.
  • 16-25 year olds constituted 13.6% of the population in 2010, but made up almost 33.4% of the impairment-related traffic deaths.

Studies conclude that young drivers are over-represented in road crashes for two primary reasons: inexperience and immaturity. Although young people are the least likely to drive impaired, the ones who do are at very high risk of collision.

For more information, please see Youth and Impaired Driving: Opportunities for Progress. (PDF)

Alcohol-Impaired Driving Among Youth

Alcohol affects judgement, hand-eye coordination, ability to focus, ability to see and think clearly, and ability to recognize potentially dangerous or hazardous road conditions or situations. Drivers with even a little alcohol in their systems are more likely to be involved in a crash causing death than a sober driver.

Young and novice drivers usually lack both driving and drinking experience. They tend to be risk takers and are less cautious than their older counterparts. So, even in the absence of alcohol, young drivers are at a greater relative risk of crash than older, more experienced drivers. When you add alcohol to the equation, the risks become significantly higher.

Characteristics of the Drinking and Driving Problem Among Youth

  • Older Teens: Of all the young drinking drivers who are killed or seriously injured, the smallest proportion is 16 years of age. The largest proportion is 19 years of age.
  • Males: Account for 87% of the young fatally injured drinking drivers and 89% of the seriously injured drinking drivers.
  • Summertime: Young drinking drivers are most likely to be killed or injured in the summer (32.4% and 40.8% respectively) and least likely to be killed or injured in the winter (8% and 11.4% respectively).
  • Weekend: A large percentage of young drinking drivers die or are seriously injured on the weekend.
  • Night time: The vast majority of young drinking drivers die or are seriously injured in crashes at night.
  • Automobiles: Most young drinking drivers are killed or seriously injured when driving an automobile.
  • Single-vehicle: Young drinking drivers are most likely to be involved in single-vehicle crashes.
  • At fault: In nearly two-thirds of the alcohol-related multiple vehicle crashes, it was the fatally injured teen driver who had been drinking and not the other drivers.
  • Crashes: By the time a driver reaches a blood alcohol content of .10%, he or she is 51 times more likely than a non-drinking driver to be involved in a fatal crash.

Drug-Impaired Driving

Population surveys show the number of Canadians driving after using drugs is on the rise. In fact, driving after smoking cannabis is now more prevalent among some younger drivers than driving after drinking. Survey data from a 2013 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health report showed that, among young Ontario drivers in grades 10 – 12, 4% per cent drove after drinking while 9.7% drove after smoking cannabis.

Equally concerning as the numbers is the misperception that many young people, and some parents, have that driving under the influence of cannabis is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol. A national study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free Canada revealed:

  • Nearly one third (32%) of teens did not consider driving under the influence of cannabis to be as bad as alcohol.
  • Nearly 25% of parents of teenagers did not consider driving while high on cannabis to be as bad as drinking and driving.

Many young people think driving under the influence of cannabis is risk-free. Yet studies have shown that smoking cannabis can produce unwelcome effects behind the wheel, including a shorter attention span, an altered perception of time and distances, and slower reaction times that impair the driver’s ability to respond to sudden events in traffic. A 2012 study by researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax found that smoking cannabis three hours before driving nearly doubled a driver’s risk of having a motor vehicle crash.

Combining cannabis with even small amounts of alcohol greatly increases the negative impact on driving skills.

Many young people also think that they will never be caught or charged for driving high. While detecting cannabis is more challenging than detecting alcohol because we do not yet have a simple roadside drug test similar to the alcohol breathalyzer, police do have tools to determine whether a driver is impaired by drugs. The standard field sobriety test and the drug recognition evaluation allow police to determine if a driver is under the influence of drugs based on their behaviour and task-related tests. Furthermore, driving while high results in the same type of Criminal Code charges and penalties as driving while drunk.

Graduated Licensing Programs and .00% BAC Requirements for Young Drivers

Most provinces and territories in Canada have some form of graduated licensing program (GLP) for young and beginning drivers. These programs are designed to give new and young drivers an opportunity to gain driving experience while limiting known risks. They typically include a zero blood alcohol content requirement, as well as night-time and highway driving restrictions and a limit on passenger numbers.

In recognition of the heightened dangers alcohol poses to young drivers, many provinces have introduced, or are considering, longer zero BAC requirements. (MADD Canada recommends an extension up to age 21.) This requirement remains in effect until the stated age, regardless of when the young driver completes the GLP.

Young drivers are already disadvantaged due to their inexperience, and they should not have their judgment impaired by alcohol. They tend to be risk takers and are less cautious than their older counterparts, so, even in the absence of alcohol, they are at greater risk of crash than older, more experienced drivers. And when alcohol is added, young drivers are at far greater risk of death than their older driving counterparts with comparable BACS.

The .00% BAC restriction has been shown to reduce impaired driving and crashes among young drivers. A study of Ontario’s .00% BAC restriction showed a 25% reduction in the number of Grade 11 and Grade 12 males who reported driving after drinking.

MADD Canada strongly urges provinces and territories to address the drug-impaired driving problem among young and novice drivers as well.  We recommend that jurisdictions prohibit all drivers under 21 and all drivers during the first five years from being positive for drugs.

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