MONDAY, Oct. 5, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- "Tweeners" who think marijuana is acceptable may be more likely to drive drunk or ride with a drunk driver when they reach high school, a new study suggests.
The researchers followed nearly 1,200 U.S. middle school students from 2009 to 2013. The kids were assessed at ages 12, 14 and 16. The scientists found that positive beliefs about marijuana and confidence in their ability to not use marijuana when the kids were 12 were significant predictors of later driving drunk or riding with a drinking driver when they were 16.
"It is crucial to intervene early to help prevent DUI or riding with a drinking driver in high school," said lead researcher Brett Ewing, a statistical project associate at RAND Corp in Santa Monica, Calif.
"We need to target youth in middle school, and start the discussion with youth on how to make healthy choices," she said.
"We need to intervene in early adolescence at multiple levels to reduce high school DUI and riding with a drinking driver," Ewing said. "For example, focusing on not only the individual teen, but also on peer and family influences."
The report was published online Oct. 5 in the journal Pediatrics.
Ewing added that, for 14-year-olds, drinking, having positive beliefs about marijuana, having friends who drink or family members who use marijuana were all strong predictors of driving while drunk in high school.
However, the study only found an association between attitudes about marijuana and later drinking and driving. A cause-and-effect link was not established.
Colleen Sheehey-Church, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), said, "This study validates what we have seen for a while."
Sheehey-Church said that parents need to start talking to their children about alcohol and drugs early. "They need to start talking to younger kids more often and really put a plan in place to change some of these beliefs," she said.
The same needs to be done by schools and communities, she added.
Starrla Penick, national program director at MADD, added, "Teens who do not start drinking until they are 21 are 85 percent less likely to be in a car crash than those who start drinking before age 14."
Kids who start drinking early are more likely to drive drunk later in life and get into a car with a driver who has been drinking, Penick said.
Penick said parents have an essential role in fighting peer pressure. Parents need to start talking specifically about alcohol and drugs like marijuana when their children are young and continue the discussion throughout their teens, she said.
In addition, parents need to have children understand that just because they haven't been caught yet doesn't mean they won't be caught, Penick said.
Parents need to help their children stand up to peer pressure. Changing perceptions about alcohol and drugs is also important, she said.
So when kids say, "Everyone is doing it," parents need to tell them, "No, everyone isn't drinking or smoking marijuana," Penick said.
Sheehey-Church, who lost her own teen son in a car driven by a drunk driver, said, "I can't say enough about how important it is that kids have their beliefs about alcohol and marijuana changed and how they need to protect themselves and their friends."
For more information on drinking and driving, visit MADD.