KidsInTheHouse the Ultimate Parenting Resource
Kids in the House Tour

Truth or Consequences?

In a now infamous briefing to reporters, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said, “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.”


It is the unknown unknowns that may best describe the disconnect between parents and their teen drivers. 

Alas, not everything is as it seems, it seems.  At least when it comes to drinking and driving, using designated drivers and texting while behind the wheel.

According to a new survey from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, teens seem to have different definitions of what it actually means to engage in these potentially deadly behaviors. For example, the results make clear that, while teens tend to say they understand the dangers surrounding drinking and driving, many still engage in those behaviors:

  • The majority (86 percent) of teen drivers consider driving under the influence of alcohol to be extremely or very distracting; yet
  • One in 10 teens who say they never drive under the influence acknowledge that they occasionally drive after having an alcoholic beverage
  • More than two-thirds of teens (68 percent) who admit to driving under the influence of alcohol say they have done so after having more than three alcoholic beverages

And what about designated drivers?

While underage drinking is never acceptable and always illegal, many teens and parents consider a designated driver to be a safe alternative to impaired driving, despite SADD’s contention that their use only enables youth using alcohol.  Even so, more than half of parents (58 percent) encourage teens to appoint designated drivers to avoid driving under the influence, and almost half of teens (47 percent) admit to doing so.

But, here again, parents may not know what they don’t know: namely that “designated driver” may not mean no alcohol!  According to the survey results:

  • Designated Means “Basically Sober”: 21 percent of teens say their designated driver is allowed to have “a little” alcohol or other drugs, as long as they aren’t too impaired to drive
  • Designated Means “Least Impaired”: 4 percent of teens describe their designated driver as the “most sober” person in the group

When it comes to distracted driving, the good news is that almost all (96 percent) teen drivers understand that using a cell phone while driving is at least slightly distracting and more than half (62 percent) think texting and driving is extremely or very distracting.

The bad news is that:

  • The majority of teen drivers (86 percent) still admit to using a cell phone behind the wheel
  • Nearly half (47 percent) of the teen drivers who say they never text while driving still admit to texting at a red light or stop sign
  • 68 percent of teen drivers admit to reading or replying to text messages while driving

“While many teens seem to have gotten the message about these driving dangers, the real challenge is to make sure they understand that even a sip of alcohol or a quick text at a red light can be deadly,” said David Melton, driving safety expert with Liberty Mutual Insurance and managing director of global safety.

Help is on the way.

Liberty Mutual Insurance and SADD encourage parents to have conversations with their teens about responsible driving and to sign a Parent/Teen Driving Contract. The customized agreement enables parents to create and uphold family driving rules.

Penny Wells, president and CEO of SADD, says, “It’s often a challenge for parents to keep up with rapidly changing trends in teen behavior, including common driving practices.  That makes regular family communication about decision-making all the more important.”

Such dialogue is a known known parents can deploy to learn the truth about teen driving and avoid the consequences of not.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit 

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2014 All Rights Reserved

Stephen Gray Wallace's picture

Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed., is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing risk. He is a consultant to summer camps on staff training and teen leadership programming and has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. Stephen is a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at