One-third of Canadian high school students have rode with drivers who had been drinking alcohol and nearly one in five with a driver who’d been smoking pot, a study conducted by the University of Waterloo reveals.
Researchers at the Ontario university’s Propel Centre for Population Health Impact found that 35 per cent of students in Grades 9 to 12 reported being passengers of drivers who had at least one drink within the previous hour and nearly 20 per cent rode in cars with a driver who had used marijuana within two hours.
The study is titled Under the Influence: examination of prevalence and correlates of alcohol and marijuana consumption in relation to youth driving and passenger behaviours in Canada. A cross-sectional study.
It surveyed 24,650 students.
Leia Minaker, lead author of the paper and assistant professor at Waterloo, said the numbers are “concerning” because “Canadian youth are at higher risk of death from traffic injuries than any other age group” and a “significant proportion of car-crash deaths are related to alcohol and drug impairment.”
Markita Kaulius, founder of Families for Justice, lost her 22-year-old daughter Kassandra to a drunk driver in Surrey in 2011 and now speaks with high school students hoping the same avoidable fate does not befall them.
She has spoken with 10 classes of Grade 10 students within the past three weeks, addressing 30 to 40 students at a time.
“I go through everything,” she says. Kaulius shows them photos of her daughter’s car, demolished when the drunk driver smashed into it with a van at 103 km/h after downing a bottle and a half of wine and blowing through a red light.
“She was a real person,” Kaulius impresses upon the students as she discusses her daughter’s tragic death. She tells them four to six people a day are killed by a drunk driver in Canada and 190 are injured.
“It is scary out there.”
During one recent school visit, Kaulius asked the students for a show of hands how many had rode in a car where someone had drank alcohol or used drugs.
“I would say 90 per cent of the class put their hand up,” Kaulius recalls. “I’m saddened to hear that that many are willing to take a chance.”
Was she shocked?
“I was, and I wasn’t. I was that there was that many but I was not surprised because they just seemed to think it was OK to do. Nothing surprises me anymore.
“It’s something you just think, in this day and age, why are people still doing this?
She notes that many young people think nothing bad will ever happen to them.
“They do it once, and ‘Well nothing happened last time so it’s OK to do it this time and I’ll do it again, right?’ And what I think my next question would be, on average, it’ll be a question of have you done this five times, or 10 times, and just see what numbers come back.
The Waterloo study, recently published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal Open, also found that about nine per cent of Grade 11 and 12 students – roughly 66,000 teens – have driven within an hour of drinking and 9.4 per cent drove after using marijuana.
“I would believe those stats to be true,” Kaulius tells the Now-Leader. “I think as well, they way they think of driving after drinking, it seems to be not a big deal and that is truly what we need to change.
“That was one of the things that I mentioned to these kids, that they are the next generation of Canadians and they can make a difference in the impaired driving stats,” she says.
“I encourage them to be designated drivers. When they receive their licence at 16, it’s not their right to drive, it’s a privilege to drive and that at 16 they have been deemed old enough to know right from wrong and we hope at that age that they will make the choice to be responsible.
“The designated driver is not the person who has had the least amount of beer,” she says. “The person who has chosen to be responsible that night and to get themselves and their friends home safely and it’s one of the most important things that they will ever do in their lifetime.”
Teens looking to their parents’ example but don’t always see wise behaviour.
“A lot of times they’ll see parents go out for dinner and drinks, and then they’ll drive, so I guess it’s OK if my parents to do that.”
Kaulius encourages young people who are planning to party to make arrangements to use public transit, get a cab or have a designated driver.
“Even call their parents. Your parents would much rather come and pick you up, even if you have been drinking, than to receive two RCMP officers at their front door to tell them, ‘I’m sorry to inform you your child’s been killed in an impaired driving collision.’ Parents just want you to be safe.”
Meanwhile, Minaker notes that while the link between alcohol-related impaired driving and traffic crash rates is well recognized, “the consequences of marijuana use are less clear.
“As legislation is drafted to regulate recreational marijuana over the coming months,” she says, “the federal government and the provinces need to prioritize keeping marijuana away from kids and creating strong policies to reduce marijuana-impaired driving.”
Kaulis also offers a caveat.
“Now the government will legalize marijuana, that doesn’t mean it’ll be OK to do that and drive – you’ll still be impaired.”
The University of Waterloo’s researchers also found that boys are more likely to drive after drinking alcohol or using marijuana but girls were more likely to ride with impaired drivers.
Teens in rural areas are at the greatest risk and students in Saskatchewan had the highest rates of using marijuana and drinking alcohol before driving, the study revealed.