News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Teen Drinking and Driving Cut in Half
U.S. teens are half as likely to drink and drive as their counterparts did 20 years ago, a new study finds. Researchers looked at national surveys of teens from 1991 through 2011. Teens ages 16 or older were asked if they had driven after drinking alcohol in the last month. In 2011, about 1 out of 10 teens said yes. In the 1991 survey, more than 22% said they drank and drove. But even the current results added up to about 1 million teens who drink and drive. About 85% of those who drank and drove were also binge drinkers. This means they had at least 5 drinks within a couple of hours. Experts think the lower rates are related to several things. Since 1991, all states have adopted "zero tolerance" laws. These laws set the blood alcohol limit at or near zero for teen drivers. Many states also have graduated licensing laws. These laws put limits on when teens can drive and how many people can ride with them. The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published the study online. HealthDay News wrote about it October 2.
By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
Getting a driver's license is an exciting time for teens. It also is dangerous! Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of teenagers in the United States. About 3,000 young lives are lost every year because of car accidents.
It is against the law for anyone younger than 21 to drive with even a very small amount of alcohol in his or her system. Yet, many fatal crashes in teens are a result of drinking and driving. Most crashes involving teens are caused by driver inexperience. When alcohol is added to the mix, the result can be especially deadly.
A new study looked at the rates of drinking and driving among high school students ages 16 years and older. The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published the study. Researchers calculated how many of the students had driven a car after drinking alcohol. They used information from surveys filled out by students between 1991 and 2011.
They found that drinking and driving among teens in high school has fallen by more than half (54%) during the last 20 years. In 2011, 10.3% of high school students reported drinking and driving in the previous 30 days. That's about half of the 22.3% rate in 1991.
This is great news. Some of the likely causes of the decrease include:
- Raising the minimum drinking age to 21
- "Zero tolerance" laws that make it illegal for teens to drive after drinking even small amounts of alcohol
- Graduated driver licensing laws that limit nighttime driving and the number of passengers for new drivers
Researchers also found that certain teens were more likely to drink and drive than others:
- Males more than females
- White and Hispanic students more than black students
- Older students more than younger students
The amount of drinking and driving was up to 3 times as high in some states as in others. Of those students who were drinking and driving, 85% binge drank at least once in the last 30 days. Binge drinking was defined as 5 or more drinks within a couple of hours.
Although much has been done, there is still much work to do! Teens who drink and drive still cause more than 800 deaths each year. Work must continue to educate teens on the real dangers of drinking and driving.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
Proven strategies can improve the safety of young drivers on the road. Teen car crashes can be prevented. Here are some things you can do to keep your teen driver safe:
- Remember that practice makes perfect. Practice driving with your teen as much as you can. The more experience teens have behind the wheel, the safer they will drive.
- Set rules for the road. Make sure that your new driver and any passengers always wear seat belts. Limit the hours in which your teen is allowed to drive. Don't allow driving at night, or at other times when crashes are more likely. Limit or ban driving with other teens in the car. Having teen passengers also increases the risk of a crash.
- Write a parent-teen driving agreement. Discuss your rules of the road with your teen. Talk about why the rules must be followed. Make it clear what the consequences are for breaking them. Work with your teen to create and sign a parent-teen driving agreement.
- Lead by example. Model good driving behaviors. Do this even when your children are too young to drive. Young children still pick up on your dangerous behaviors. If you talk on the phone, text, speed or drive without your seat belt, your teen might do the same.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers help through its "Parents are the Key" campaign. It offers tools and proven steps for reducing teen driving injuries and deaths. Learn more and get advice from the CDC website.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
You can expect more efforts to keep young drivers safe on the road. Minimum drinking age laws and zero tolerance laws will continue to be strictly enforced. States will also continue to use graduated driver licensing systems. I hope that with more education, the number of teenagers drinking and driving will continue to decrease.