Closing the societal gender gap is a noble goal, but there is at least one area where women shouldn’t be striving to outdo men: drunk driving. While, in keeping with historic trends, overall men are still more likely to get into deadly alcohol-related accidents than women, a new study published in the journal Injury Prevention suggests that intoxicated young women are involved in a growing number of deadly collisions. From 1995 to 2007, there were nearly 180,000 fatal car crashes involving drivers between the ages of 16 to 24 across the U.S. In 2007 alone, nearly one third of those deadly accidents involved drivers who had been drinking, and 23% involved drivers whose blood alcohol content was above the legal limit of .08 g/dl. And, what is most alarming to researchers, is that growing proportion of those alcohol-related accidents involve young women. While deadly alcohol-related collisions plateaued among 21- to 24-year-old men during the 12-year study period, they increased among women of the same age group—from .6 in every 100,000 deadly crashes, to 1 out of every 100,000.
The study, conducted by a team of pediatricians and emergency medicine researchers from the University of California San Diego, University of California Irvine and Yale University, also revealed that, from 1995 to 2007, fatal crashes involving higher BAC levels, .15g/dl or more, increased for both genders—up 2% for women, and 2.5% for men. Also, more young women were involved in deadly alcohol-related crashes on both weekdays and weekends. As the study authors write: “[B]oth the frequency and severity of alcohol involvement have steadily increased and this change is not restricted to typical times of greater alcohol consumption.”
While, generally speaking, women were still more likely than men to wear seat belts, researchers found that, as BAC levels increased, seat belt use decreased for both genders. Among drivers involved in deadly accidents with BAC levels of .15g/dl or higher (or nearly twice the legal limit), for example, just 38% of women and 27% of men were wearing the safety restraints.
The findings, derived from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, point to a potential danger of dropping the legal drinking age, the researchers argue. Though groups like the Amethyst Initiative, which includes several university deans and chancellors, advocate for lowering the legal drinking age as a way to reduce binge-drinking on campus, the authors suggest that doing so could have dangerous consequences on the road. For example, during the study period, fatal alcohol-related accidents decreased among men aged 16 to 20 and 16-year-old girls, and flattened out among 17-year-old girls. But, for older groups of women, who presumably either have easier access or legal access to alcohol, rates increased.
Some of the upward trend in drunk-driving among young women may be a warped reflection of broad societal advances in gender equality, the researchers indicate. “As more women continue to be encouraged to take on more traditional male roles within cultures and society, young women may also feel compelled to match their male counterparts in risk-taking behaviors and aggression,” the authors write, something they argue suggests a need for gender-specific education campaigns for young drivers. Perhaps those efforts should begin with one simple message for the ladies: you have to be alive to shatter that glass ceiling.