PRC Resources

Underage Drinking

Mixed messages: Contributions to adolescent drinking and driving 
Story of Discovery


Fatal drinking and driving crashes involving adolescents have decreased in recent years, but these crashes remain a significant problem for young people. So, how can parents and other adult authorities help to prevent these incidents? A study from the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley addresses this question and comes up with surprising findings.


The Current Study

This study examined the responses of 44 young people (aged 16-21 years) to semi-structured, in-person interviews. The respondents had been identified in a previous telephone survey as admitting to drinking and driving, riding with a drunk driver, or both.

The analysis of the interviews focused on the discrepancies between messages presented by adult authorities, including parents, police, and school and prevention programs, and the respondents' experience of actual behavior from these authorities.


Study Findings

The overall finding was that there are contradictions between what teens are told by their parents, law enforcement, and school programs and the actual behavior of these adults. These contradictions may contribute to risky drinking and driving behavior by the young people.

Parents: The overall picture that the respondents painted of the communication with their parents about alcohol and drinking and driving was that they experienced their parents as being either lax about or uncomfortable with discussing the topics, or that parents even thought that it was unnecessary to discuss alcohol with their teenagers. Only a small minority of the respondents reported that their parents had openly discussed drinking and driving with them. A common denominator of these perceptions is the discrepancy between the adolescents' actual drinking behavior, and what they believe their parents know about their behavior. Although most of the participants reported that their parents were aware of their drinking, they believed that their parents were not aware of how much they sometimes drank. In some cases, parents seemed to know that their teenagers drank but were totally unaware of the high volume of drinking their teenagers would sometimes engage in.

In terms of drinking and driving, even if the adolescents perceived their parents as being somewhat resigned to their drinking, they all knew that they would experience severe problems with their parents if they found out that they had been drinking and driving. One important example of the communication discrepancy was that many of the respondents reported that their parents had told them that they would provide safe transportation any time the child was in danger of driving after drinking or riding with an impaired driver. Despite this stated stance, the respondents said that they would be reluctant to take their parents up on this offer and knew that if they did they would get in trouble with their parents.

School: Overall, the interviews show some problems with the school-based programs. Few people in this sample remembered having participated in any programs at school, and of those who did remember it, only few had paid attention or felt that it had impacted their attitudes and behavior. In particular, it seems to be a problem that the D.A.R.E. program is limited to the elementary school. Furthermore, the message of the program seemed problematic, as one of the respondents explained that he had been taught that one drop of alcohol would impact him in a negative way. In order to have an impact on the teenagers, the messages have to be credible. If they perceive any information to be false or exaggerated, they will probably not trust any other messages passed on by the same authorities.

Police: The interviews focused on the adolescents' perception of the enforcement of drinking and driving laws. If adolescents perceive the law enforcement concerning drinking and driving as inconsistent or not very strong, this removes one deterrent to this behavior and may even encourage them to participate in this behavior. Therefore, it is imperative that the police are perceived as strongly and consistently enforcing the drinking and driving laws. However, the interviews with this sample revealed a somewhat different picture. Six out of 44 respondents reported that either they themselves had or knew of friends who had been stopped by the police when drinking and driving but were not charged with impaired driving. In some of the cases the police even realized that the person had been drinking and still did not react appropriately

These experiences are almost certainly counterproductive in terms of preventing adolescent drinking and driving. The interviews reveal that the one thing the teenagers generally fear the most about participating in drinking and driving is to be caught by the police and losing their license. This highlights the importance of consistent and strong enforcement of the drinking and driving laws. The experience of friends and peers who were arrested and convicted for impaired driving appeared to make a strong impression on respondents.


This study points out serious problems in the communication between the adults, such as parents, police, and other authorities and the adolescents who they wish to influence. Parents, schools, and police are not consistent and persistent in their communication with adolescents concerning alcohol and drinking and driving. This may actually prevent teenagers from understanding the extent and the importance of the problem and make them much more vulnerable to the influence of peers and friends who are already involved in the behavior. New research, quantitative as well as qualitative, needs to focus on the relationship between parents, other adults, and adolescents to better understand the issues involved in the miscommunication indicated by the findings in this study. Such research could be helpful in developing new and better programs to prevent adolescent drinking and driving.


The Take-Home Message

Adolescents receive mixed messages from their parents and other adult authorities regarding drinking and drinking and driving. Furthermore, many adolescents feel that their parents are not available for talks about issues that are important to them, like alcohol, drugs, and sex. The contradictory messages may contribute to risky drinking and driving behavior by the young people.



Addiction Research and Theory
October, 2005, 13(5): 411-426