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Q&A: Teenagers Underage Drinking as of March 2004

Author / Coordinator:  
March 2007

Article: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control

1. Is alcohol a significant factor in teenage crashes? Yes. Young drivers are less likely than adults to drive after drinking alcohol, but their crash risks are substantially higher when they do. This is especially true at low and moderate blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) and is thought to result from teenagers’ relative inexperience with drinking and driving and with combining these activities.

In 2002, 25 percent of 16-20-year-old passenger vehicle drivers fatally injured in crashes had high blood alcohol concentrations (0.08 percent or more). Teenage drivers with BACs in the 0.05-0.08 percent range are far more likely than sober teenage drivers to be killed in single-vehicle crashes — 17 times more likely for males, 7 times more likely for females. At BACs of 0.08-0.10, risks are even higher, 52 times for males, 15 times for females.

2.  What works to reduce drinking and driving among teenagers? Minimum alcohol purchasing age laws work. For a long time, the legal age for purchasing alcohol was 21 years old in most of the United States. Then, in the 1960s and early 1970s, many states lowered their minimum purchasing ages to 18 or 19 years old. The Institute’s research on the consequences of this action indicated an increase in the number of drivers younger than 21 involved in nighttime fatal crashes.

As a result of this and other studies with similar findings, a number of states raised their minimum alcohol purchasing ages — in some states back to 21 years old and in other states to 19 or 20. Institute researchers evaluated this development in nine states in 1981, finding reductions in nighttime fatal crashes among young drivers. The average fatality reduction based on all nine states was 28 percent. A subsequent study in 26 states that raised minimum legal alcohol purchasing ages during 1975-84 estimated a 13 percent reduction in nighttime driver fatal crash involvement.

In 1984, 23 states had minimum alcohol purchasing ages of 21 years old, and federal legislation was enacted to withhold highway funds from the remaining 27 states if they did not follow suit. Since July 1988, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have required alcohol purchasers to be 21 years old.

3. How has the teenage drinking and driving problem changed over time? Trends in alcohol involvement in fatal crashes can be monitored through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a census of virtually all fatal crashes in the United States. During the 1980s, percentages of fatally injured drivers with high BACs (0.08 percent or more) declined among drivers of all ages. Reductions among young drivers were greatest, in part because of changing alcohol purchasing age laws. In 1982, fewer than half of the states had purchasing requirements for 21 year-olds, and 49 percent of all fatally injured drivers younger than 21 had high BACs. This statistic declined dramatically as states adopted older purchasing ages, and by 1995 it had declined to 24 percent, the biggest improvement for any age group. This decline ended in 1995.

4. What can be done to further reduce teenage drinking and driving? In 1990-91, Institute researchers found 19-20 year-olds could easily buy a six-pack of beer in Washington, D.C. and a New York City suburb. But in two New York counties where police had recently cracked down on underage alcohol purchases, youths were less successful. In these studies, the underage purchasers were generally not even asked by sellers for proof of their age. In 1994 and 1995, Institute researchers surveyed high school and college students younger than age 21 in New York and Pennsylvania about alcohol use and purchase. Fifty-nine percent of college students and 28 percent of high school students in New York and 37 percent of college students and 14 percent of high school students in Pennsylvania reported they had used false identification to obtain alcohol. Many communities are stepping up enforcement of alcohol purchasing age laws — clearly this is needed to make them more effective

5. Are the BAC thresholds for illegal driving per se lower for teenagers than for older drivers? All 50 states and the District of Columbia have established lower blood alcohol thresholds that are illegal per se for drivers younger than 21. Federal legislation enacted in 1995 that allowed for the withholding of highway funds played a role in motivating states to pass such laws. Research indicates such policies reduce nighttime fatal crashes in this age group.

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