December 14, 2015 —

It may not seem like a “big deal” to quickly glance at a text message while driving on the highway. For some, getting on the road after a drink or two feels harmless. Until something happens. We go through a red light. We don’t notice a car switching into our lane. There’s an accident.

The fact of the matter is that when someone engages in alcohol abuse, over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine abuse, texting and other reckless behaviors before or while driving, they are putting themselves and others at serious risk. According to the DUI Foundation, 188,000 alcohol-related emergency department visits involved 12-20 year olds and, of these visits, 20% resulted in a serious outcome, including admission to the hospital, transfer to another health care facility or death. Furthermore, when two risky behaviors are combined, such as the abuse of OTC cough medicine and alcohol, it can cause additional harmful effects.

Being a high school teacher, I hear about impaired driving accidents far too often. These tragedies affect the entire community and it is heart wrenching to think that such events might have been prevented with open communication and increased awareness.

So, how can we talk to our teenagers about safety on the road without getting eye rolls and blank stares? In honor of National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, I’d like to offer the following two suggestions: active listening and positive framing.

Communication is key. While we often take this as our cue to barge into our teen’s room and lecture about the dangers of alcohol consumption, it’d be more beneficial to pause, make a conscious effort to drop the agenda and just listen. Ask your teen how his or her day was and inquire about upcoming weekend plans. Begin to cultivate a habit of active listening—being fully present with your teen without thinking about what you’re going to say next. The more you can establish an ongoing, open and honest dialogue, the easier it will be for you to bring up sensitive topics, like driving and driving.

Even if you don’t think your teenager is being exposed to situations where alcohol consumption and other risky behaviors are occurring, it’s still important to have the conversation. This is an opportunity to ask your teen what he or she thinks about safety instead of just lecturing about what you think! You can also brainstorm options in case your teen finds him or herself in a dangerous situation. For example, you can discuss how it may be best to take an Uber home from a party instead of hopping in the car with a peer who has had a few drinks. The key is letting your son or daughter know that you are aware of what happens amongst teens and want to talk about it openly. It is always better to communicate honestly than turn a blind eye to avoid a potentially uncomfortable conversation.

The second way we can emphasize driving safety with teens is by framing it more positively. Instead of inundating your teenager with horror stories about what could happen, try shifting the focus of the conversation to his or her personal values, aspirations and goals. For example, does he want to be an artist? Does she plan to become more competitive in dance? Is attending college a priority? If so, it is in your teen’s best interest to avoid the overconsumption of alcohol, drugs or OTC medicine, and even texting, while driving.

Teenagers tend to disassociate themselves from particularly traumatic events because it feels so far from their reality. That being said, try to link what your teen cares about with the importance of safety. Your teen will be more likely to think twice in a difficult situation if you make the potential circumstances feel relevant to his or her personal life.

As your teen gets ready to ring in 2016, make sure he or she is celebrating safely. As a parent, you can use the New Year as an opportunity to cultivate a new habit and start the conversation around driving safety with your teen.

Go here to learn more about National Impaired Driving Prevention Month and what you can do to help keep our streets and highways safe.