By John Toole
---- — Drinking, texting and unbuckled — those are some of the alarming findings about teenage drivers contained in New Hampshire’s new survey of risky behavior among youths.
Department of Education officials released 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey data last week. The results are culled from 1,634 responses from 71 randomly selected schools, but the department said they can be generalized to all students.
The survey, conducted last spring, asked high school students about a variety of behavior ranging from alcohol, drug and tobacco use to diet, physical activity and sex.
For the first time, the survey asked about texting and driving.
About half the respondents — 47.7 percent — admitted to texting or emailing while driving.
That number was dramatically higher among high school seniors — 68.6 percent.
Young women did it more often than young men, 49.4 percent to 46.2 percent.
Teenagers also confessed to drinking while driving, 8.4 percent said they had done so.
The number was higher among seniors, 11.8 percent. There was no difference among genders.
Another question looked at seat belt use and found 9.7 percent of students said they never or rarely wore one while riding with someone else.
Educators, counselors and safety officials all agree the numbers are a concern.
“It’s alarming,” Londonderry High School guidance director Mike Dolphin said.
“We are equally blown away,” Sanborn Regional High School principal Brian Stack said.
“This really puts those young drivers in greater danger than they realize,” New Hampshire State Police Lt. Matt Shapiro said.
Highway Safety Agency coordinator Peter Thomson characterized the number of students acknowledging they had driven while drinking as terrible.
“Seniors get a little macho and want to party,” Thomson said. “Even 11.8 percent is way too much.”
Dolphin expressed frustration that despite at least a generation of efforts to keep students from drinking and driving, some remain intent on doing so.
“The 8 percent, that’s very surprising given all the education that’s gone on for 30 years,” he said.
Dolphin would do more, but admitted that’s a challenge in today’s schools.
“You’ve got to have a K-12 decision-making curriculum,” he said. “But that’s not something that can be done anymore. There are too many other things to do, there is no time left.”
Pam Santa Fe is the substance misuse prevention coordinator for the Greater Derry Public Health Network that serves more than a dozen towns in Rockingham County.
She said the drinking and driving numbers have improved, down from 9.4 percent in the last survey in 2011, but she remains dissatisfied.
“We still have work to do,” she said.
The texting issue has state safety officials turning to the Legislature for help.
“The texting really shows that we as adults and the Legislature have got to take a stance on this,” Thomson said. “It’s like they can’t live without a cell phone and texting.”
Laws may change.
“You’ll see efforts in the Legislature to deal with that,” Shapiro said.
Lawmakers already are pursuing at least two proposals that would ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.
Shapiro said the risks of crashing are estimated to be eight to 23 times higher when texting.
He said he wished the survey had inquired about cell phone use, too, because of distractions from punching in numbers or looking up contacts.
“Cell phone, period, is not a good idea,” Shapiro said.
Schools already are delivering an anti-texting message.
Santa Fe said the Timberlane Regional School District has used simulators to show teenagers the dangers.
“This showed them in that split second how their responses were impaired,” she said.
Students themselves are broaching the issue through peer programs and campaigns.
Stack said Sanborn students next month will see an anti-texting video, developed by sophomores, in cooperation with local safety officials and the Brookside Chapel & Funeral Home.
It tells the story of a girl, who is running late to class and texting, who loses her life in a crash.
“There will be a big screening for juniors and seniors in December,” Stack said.
The students considered an anti-drinking video, but went instead with anti-texting, he said.
“The more silent killer is the texting one,” Stack said.
While educators and politicians may have a say, there’s an important role for parents, too.
“My feeling is we’ve really got to get parents involved in this,” Thomson said.
Parents need to keep their kids on the right path, he said.
“We don’t want them getting hurt and killed,” Thomson said.
“You have to be very strict about the rules about going out,” Dolphin said.
It’s OK to call another parent to inquire about student get-togethers, even when that seems awkward.
“People don’t want to upset anyone,” Dolphin said.
Parents need to let their children know they should call when they get into a situation with alcohol, even if it’s the middle of the night, he said.
“There’s danger everywhere,” Dolphin said. “You still have to have those conversations.”
Santa Fe describes it as “leading by example,” and said it may take simple forms like refraining from drinking when going out to dinner.
“Practice what you preach,” Stack said.
He concedes it was uncomfortable when his phone was ringing and he looked for it while driving, only to be challenged by his 8-year-old son.
“Dad, you’re not supposed to be doing that,” he remembers his son saying.
Stack is a believer in parents taking their time to talk with kids about these issues when the chance comes up.
“Every time a parent has an opportunity to have that conversation with their kids, have the conversation,” he said. “Kids need a constant reminder this is a big deal from the people they love and care about.”
Thomson took a more positive view of the seat belt question.
He points out while New Hampshire mandates seat belt use for those under 18, it makes seat belt use voluntary for adults.
Surveys show about 72 percent of New Hampshire adults use seat belts, so if nearly 90 percent of teenagers are doing so, that’s positive, he said.
“That is excellent, it really is, and I applaud them for that,” Thomson said.
There’s one consideration no program, no law may ever resolve with young drivers.
“The bottom line is youth stereotypically don’t recognize risky behavior,” Shapiro said.
Santa Fe agreed.
“Kids do feel they are immortal,” she said. “Remember when you were young? Nothing could happen to you. That only happens to other people. When you get older, you become aware of your mortality and that risky behavior can lead to bad things happening to me.”