Study: Pa. High Schoolers Risking Driving Under Influence

July 14, 2006

Pennsylvania high school seniors are increasingly drinking to excess and getting behind the wheel after drinking alcohol or taking drugs, according to a statewide survey. It also found that about one in five has gone to school drunk or high.

Fifty-four percent of the state’s 12th-graders reported drinking alcohol during the prior month — the highest level recorded in eight surveys since 1989, and 5 percentage points higher than two years ago.

The Pennsylvania Youth Survey Report also found, however, record lows among younger students in the use of alcohol or illicit drugs. The report described the 2005 survey results as a “tale of two different groups of Pennsylvanians.”

“Typically, high (school) seniors are given much more freedom than their younger peers, under the assumption that they are more mature and responsible,” according to the report. “It may be time, however, to revisit these assumptions in Pennsylvania.”

A third of 12th-graders said they had five or more drinks in a row over the prior two weeks. Of that group, about 40 percent had done so at least four times during those two weeks.

About 24 percent of seniors reported driving after drinking alcohol, and nearly as many said they drove after using marijuana.

“Raw numbers don’t mean as much as which direction you’re going in, and the data from 12th-graders would suggest that school districts, the Department of Health, the Department of Education and those kinds of decision-makers need to be focusing their attention on reversing that trend,” said Michael J. Kane, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which issued the report.

The commission, with money from the federal government, samples students across the state every two years. The 2005 report was based on responses from nearly 15,000 students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades last fall at 92 randomly selected schools. Its sampling error margin is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

For the first time, the study also examined the prevalence of gambling and measured the misuse of prescription drugs.

It found that the percentage who gambled for money over the preceding year increased with age, from 21 percent in the sixth grade to 45 percent among 12th-graders.

Among all students surveyed, 8 percent said they wagered more than they meant to, and 4 percent had lied to their families about gambling.

Pennsylvania high school seniors were slightly more likely than 12th-graders in a similar national survey to use prescription amphetamines, sedatives and tranquilizers, as well as prescription narcotics such as OxyContin and Vicodin.

“We knew that the prescription drug use was going to be high,” said Liz Portelli, spokeswoman for Drug Free Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization not involved in the study. “Nationally it’s high, and there’s not a lot of prevention material out there for it.”

David H. Bender, executive director of the nonprofit Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, which coordinated the survey in Lancaster County, said the numbers indicate the success of programs that target younger students as well as a need for more aggressive efforts to reach older high school students.

“I think it’s an indication of how long a dose of prevention lasts without a booster shot,” Bender said.

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