February 22, 2024, Durham, NC – iRT Research Scientist Dr. Rebecca Stelter presented at SAMHSA’s 20th Prevention Day gathering last month to discuss the problem and prevention of substance use and impaired driving among youth. SAMHSA’s Prevention Day gathering is the largest annual, national event dedicated to advancing substance misuse prevention. Each year, substance use prevention professionals, researchers, and advocates gather to share current developments and discuss future research and innovations in substance misuse prevention. This year’s gathering took place in conjunction with CADCA’s National Leadership Forum in National Harbor, Maryland.

Dr. Stelter led a session entitled Sober Lives, Safer Roads: Innovations in Preventing Substance Use and Impaired Driving Among Youth during this year’s event to share key facts about the problem of substance use and impaired driving. Though the rate of vehicle-related deaths in the United States has declined rapidly since the 1940s, recent research indicates that driver safety remains a pressing issue, particularly for young people. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death for teenagers and young adults, and rates of vehicle deaths in the U.S. have increased in the past several years. In addition, there were significant racial disparities in traffic-related deaths between 2015 and 2019, with American Indian and Alaska Native individuals accounting for the greatest proportion of deaths and Black individuals with the second highest rate.

Risky driving behavior, including distracted driving, impaired driving, and speeding, puts drivers at a significantly higher risk for vehicle-related injuries and death. However, popular culture and advertisements often condone and normalize risky driving behaviors, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. When the messages young people receive from media, their peers, and those around them excuse or promote risky driving behaviors, youth and young adults may have more unrealistic or unhealthy beliefs about impaired driving. In a recent study observing drivers’ beliefs about impaired driving, 44% of college student participants reported that they did not believe drugs affect driving ability, and 33% of all teenagers surveyed thought driving under the influence of marijuana is legal in states where it is legal for adult recreational use. In addition, 88% of teenagers agreed that drinking and driving was dangerous, but only 68% thought driving under the influence of marijuana was dangerous. False beliefs about substance use and impaired driving may put young people at risk for engaging in more risky driving behaviors. The prevalence of false beliefs about substance impaired driving, as well as the rising rates of vehicle deaths, highlight a pressing need for impaired driving prevention strategies and resources to protect young people.

During her presentation, Stelter discussed the research and theories supporting effective strategies for preventing substance use and impaired driving in youth and young adults. The Integrated Behavioral Model and empirical research indicate that impaired driving interventions may positively impact drivers’ intentions to avoid driving while impaired when they target three key factors: perceived social norms, perceived behavioral control, and self-efficacy. In other words, young drivers may intend to avoid driving while impaired if they believe most people around them view impaired driving negatively and if they believe they have the skills and abilities needed to make decisions to avoid impaired driving. Interventions may effectively change drivers’ perceived social norms, perceived behavioral control, and self-efficacy related to impaired driving, and thereby their intent to drive safely, by providing teens and young adults with facts about typical driving behaviors and normative beliefs about distracted and impaired driving in the U.S., teaching them strategies that they can apply to their daily life to make safe driving decisions, and providing them with opportunities to practice making decisions to prevent driving while impaired. By improving drivers’ intentions to avoid impaired driving, these interventions may contribute to more safe driving behaviors.

Stelter described how iRT used this theoretical basis to develop the Plan My Ride program. Plan My Ride is a web-based, highly interactive program designed to prevent impaired driving among young drivers. Plan My Ride consists of seven self-paced eLearning lessons designed to help young drivers learn facts about impaired driving and substance use, understand the risks and consequences of impaired driving, and learn skills to avoid impaired or distracted driving in their daily life. In addition, the program includes three 360-degree interactive, immersive, virtual reality scenarios designed to provide learners with opportunities to practice making decisions to avoid impaired driving and to apply skills they have learned in a safe, realistic virtual environment. Plan My Ride incorporates engaging and relevant activities, such as videos, animations, and reinforcing quizzes. All course features are developmentally appropriate for youth and young adults to maximize learner engagement and are accessible to users with a wide range of abilities and needs. The program was recently awarded with LearnX’s Diamond Award for Best Accessibility. Plan My Ride is a flexible, universal prevention program that can be implemented in diverse settings such as in a community-based organization or school. The program could be offered as part of a driver’s education course, health class, or extra credit opportunity for students. If the program is implemented in a school setting, school staff may consider requiring students to complete the program before receiving a school parking pass or ticket to a school dance to incentivize students to complete the program.

During the presentation, Stelter also discussed findings from a feasibility study that examined the impacts of the Plan My Ride program on young drivers’ knowledge, skills, and beliefs related to impaired driving prevention. Participants, ages 14-21 years old, completed surveys after using the Plan My Ride program to report their knowledge and beliefs before and after program completion. The study found that after taking the Plan My Ride program, learners reported greater knowledge about the problem of impaired driving, higher perceived dangerousness of impaired driving, and higher perceived social norms about how many of their friends would disapprove of impaired driving. In addition, learners reported higher self-efficacy and behavioral intentions to avoid impaired driving after program completion. Overall, participants were satisfied with the program, and most learners reported that they would recommend the program to someone else.

If you are interested in implementing the Plan My Ride program in your school or organization, visit planmyride.net to get started.