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Most Children Who Die in Drunk-Driving Accidents Were Riding With The Drinking Driver

Author / Coordinator:  
California Society of Addiction Medicine
March 2007

WESTPORT, May 30 (Reuters Health) - In the May 3rd issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, two articles highlight the continuing need for education and policy interventions to reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths and injuries of children.

Dr. Lewis H. Margolis and colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed data from the 1991 to 1996 Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a nationwide registry of motor vehicle deaths. The researchers looked at a cohort of 16,676 children younger than 16 whose death resulted from a motor vehicle accident. The subjects were passengers, cyclists or pedestrians.

The results indicated that 3,310 deaths (19.9%) were linked to alcohol use by the driver of the motor vehicle. "Of the alcohol-related deaths, 79.5% involved children as passengers, and the remainder involved pedestrians or bicyclists struck by drivers who had been drinking alcohol." Drivers under the legal age to purchase alcohol accounted for 30.3% of the fatalities.

Dr. Margolis and his team say that in light of the latter finding, "laws governing availability of alcohol to this age group should be more rigorously enforced." In addition, the researchers recommend increasing the tax on alcoholic beverages to discourage teenagers from purchasing them.

In the second study, Dr. Kyran P. Quinlan and associates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia reviewed 1985 to 1996 data from the same database that Dr. Margolis' group used, as well as 1988 to 1996 data from the General Estimates System on nonfatal injuries.

They found that between 1985 and 1996, a total of 5,555 children died in car accidents in which the driver had been drinking. Of these, 3,556 (64%) were passengers riding with a "drinking" driver. The researchers note that "child restraint use decreased as both the child's age and the blood alcohol concentration of the child's driver increased."

Dr. Quinlan's group reports that between 1988 and 1996, a total of 149,000 children sustained nonfatal injuries in automobile accidents involving drunk drivers. "Of these, 58,000 (38.9%) were riding with a drinking driver when injured in the crash."

Dr. Quinlan and his colleagues recommend stricter laws and punishment for drunk driving, including license suspension, mandatory substance abuse assessment and treatment, and "zero tolerance for alcohol use by drivers younger than 21 years." They also call for counseling by healthcare providers on the dangers of drunk driving and "stricter enforcement of child safety seat laws."
In an editorial in the same issue, Dr. Guohua Li calls for the adoption of a federal zero-tolerance policy for drunk driving. Dr. Guohua says, "Tolerance of drinking and driving implies tolerance of more than 15,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States this year, next year and as long as drivers and passengers share the road with others who drink and drive."