December. As individuals, we look forward to getting together with friends and family to celebrate the holidays. It’s also a time when prevention can play an especially important role. December is a deadly month for impaired driving.
The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA) reported that in 2019 during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, 210 lives were lost due to alcohol-impaired driving crashes. That’s 210 people in one week who didn’t make it home because either they or someone with whom they came in contact chose to use alcohol and then get behind the wheel. That same year, more than 10,000 people died from drunk driving crashes alone.
These deaths were preventable. That’s why for more than 40 years, preventionists across the country have observed National Impaired Driving Prevention Month in December to raise awareness that impaired driving can be deadly and to put strategies in place for all of us to make it home safely.
As everyone takes precautions to be able to safely return to in-person events, more and more celebrations are being added to the calendar. It could be an intimate dinner at a friend’s house, perhaps a happy hour to celebrate a return to the office, or a gathering of high school friends home from college. In each instance, alcohol and other substances may not be necessarily at the center of the fun but are a common denominator.
Alcohol-impaired driving crashes—which range from being under the influence of substances to distracted driving to speeding—increase throughout December as more people travel. SAMHSA’s 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed over 26 million people ages 16 or older drove under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs during the past year. Approximately 17 percent of these people were 20 to 25 years old.
Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death and nonfatal injury among U.S. adolescents, resulting in approximately 2,500 deaths and 300,000 nonfatal injuries each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While NHTSA’s “Buzzed Driving Is Drunk Driving” campaign addresses driving under the influence of just alcohol, it’s important to note that many substances can impair driving, including marijuana, opioids, methamphetamines, or even prescribed or over-the-counter medications.
The good news is that prevention works. As we come together this holiday season, educate yourself and others on the risks of driving while impaired and take steps to stay safe. We can start with the science. There are no shortcuts to “sobering up” and preparing to drive; a person’s coordination and reaction time are slowed long before they actually show signs of intoxication. Coffee is not a cure-all. And even slowing or stopping drinking an hour or more before planning to drive does not mean the alcohol has “worn off.”
We can have conversations ahead of time so there aren’t those awkward “in the moment” exchanges. Communicate honestly with your children, friends, family members, and colleagues about expectations of behavior and safe choices when attending holiday events, whether they take place in someone’s home (where some can perceive the rules are a bit more flexible) or at a public venue. In addition, encourage ride-sharing services for gatherings where alcohol will be served and check-in with guests if you’re hosting to see if they need a ride. With planning, you can eliminate a spontaneous decision to drive.
Parents and caregivers may face even more pressure during the holidays, as many young people are home from school on break and eager to gather with their peers in a social setting. Help your young people socialize safely by:
- Discussing the dangers of underage alcohol and substance use—especially when combined with driving—and set expectations for your child’s behavior. SAMHSA’s “Talk. They Hear You.” campaign, including its new mobile app, helps parents and caregivers start these conversations.
- Sharing resources designed for youth that communicate the facts and consequences, like Underage Drinking: Myths vs. Facts and the Tips for Teens series.
- Setting curfews if youth go to a party and offering to drive them or pick them up. Even if your teen abstains from alcohol, he or she may have a hard time saying “no thanks” to a peer driver who is drinking.
- Coordinating with their friends’ parents about driving plans, as well as maintaining substance-free environments at parties. (Most states have social host laws that prohibit hosts from serving alcohol to minors. Some parents may think it’s a safe option if it’s happening “under their roof”—but it’s still breaking the law and dangerous.)
This holiday season, each of us has the power to prevent a tragedy and ensure that those we know and care about get to and from their celebrations. Speaking up about what is OK and what is not OK is a good first step—not just in relation to alcohol use but also other substances that can compromise our ability to make it home safely.
At the same time, we should be mindful that many in our communities could be experiencing the holiday blues. If you or someone you love needs mental health support and services, I encourage you to call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. If he or she is in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free and confidential support: 1-800-273-TALK.
If we practice prevention to keep ourselves and our communities safe, the holidays can be full of the joy we expect them to be.