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Drug-influenced driving a growing hazard



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WASHINGTON, Dec 02, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Mixed messages about the safety of marijuana are leading to teen drugged driving and parents need to intervene and communicate the dangers of that practice, drug and safety experts said Thursday.

The month of December was declared by President George W. Bush to be National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy put together a news conference to make clear the need for teen education of the danger of driving under the influence of drugs.

"There is a great deal of ignorance about drug impaired driving," said ONDCP Director John Walters. Teens have been reported to believe it is safer to drive while under the influence of marijuana than alcohol, panel members said. The belief is contributed to by misperceptions of the drug's damaging properties, Walters explained.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration details marijuana's adverse affect on driving: decreased car-handling performance, increased reaction times, impaired time and distance estimation, inability to maintain headway, lateral travel, subjective sleepiness, declining motor skills and impaired sustained attention have all been reported. Combining alcohol and marijuana intensify the effects.

"Motor-vehicle crashes is the leading cause of death in teens," said Dr. Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. When lack of experience is combined with drugs and alcohol the result can be fatal, he added.

Combating the problem of teens driving under the influence starts in the home, Runge said.

Parents need to fight the notion that it's too late or nothing can be done during the years that youth struggle for independence. "Far too often parents fall victim to the myth of inevitability," said Stephen Wallace, chairman of Students Against Drunk Driving.

By educating themselves, talking with teens, monitoring the activities of their children, encouraging positive activities such as sports or volunteering and not giving up, parents can play a huge role in keeping kids from drugs, Wallace said.

Parents and adults are often guilty of generating such mixed messages by facilitating, encouraging, but mostly ignoring, teen marijuana use, Wallace said. "Adults and parents need to take a hard look in the mirror and realize what messages they are sending to children," Wallace advised.

Adding to the confusion among teens on the safety of marijuana use is the availability of information that advocates the drug. A simple Internet search will turn up sites that refute the negative consequences of marijuana on driving, such as The Family Council on Drug Awareness.

The Family Council's Web site published this message: "Driving under the influence of any drug is generally discouraged, but studies have always indicated that marijuana has only a negligible effect on drivers who are experienced with its effects. The reason seems to be that, while there is a minor reduction in reaction times similar to being a few years older than the driver's current age, there is a sense of 'paranoia' that leads to slower and more cautious driving."

The lack of studies of the prevalence of marijuana-related accidents also adds to the misperception of the danger of its use. Panelists said they regretted that they only have individual studies of accidents. Runge emphasized the country's need to look at prevalence. Panelists said they hoped that testing for specifically driving under the influence of marijuana would increase.

More drug and alcohol-influenced accidents occur during the holidays. Walters encouraged parents, the most important influence on teen's perception of drug use, to talk this holiday season to teens.

In a statement released Thursday, Bush renewed his support of safe driving and behavior.

"Individuals across our country can help prevent drunk and drugged driving by encouraging responsible actions, identifying sober designated drivers and educating young people about safe, substance-free driving behavior. Working together, all Americans can make our roads safer and save lives by preventing drunk and drugged driving," Bush said.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

Copyright 2004 by United Press International.

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