CDC: Teen Drinking and Driving Falls by Half

None for the road: drinking and driving rates plummet among teens since 1991

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The number of teens who drive after drinking has dropped by more than half — 54% — since 1991, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study looked at self-reports of drinking and driving from the national Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, as well as blood alcohol results from fatal crashes involving teens nationwide. In 2011, 10.3% of high school students aged 16 or older reported drinking and driving in the previous 30 days, compared with 22.3% in 1991. “We are moving in the right direction, but we have to keep up the momentum,” said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden in a teleconference.

The CDC credited the drop in drunk driving to all states raising the minimum drinking age to 21, the implementation of stricter zero-tolerance laws (it is illegal in every state for anyone under age 21 to drive with any amount of alcohol in their system) and to the adoption of so-called graduated drivers license (GDL) laws, which limit the hours teens can legally drive at night or whether they’re allowed to take passengers. “The spread and enforcement of GDLs is a real success story for the past decade. We’ve seen teen driving fatalities fall by nearly 40% in less than five years because of GDL laws as well as other interventions,” said Frieden.

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According to Frieden, drinking and driving is also considered less socially acceptable nowadays. “There is a broader recognition that drinking and driving is not O.K.,” he said. “There is now a sense that friends don’t let friends drink and drive. If you think of the broader social change from ‘one for the road’ to ‘friends don’t let friends drink and drive,’ that’s a major change in our society, and I think that’s one of the things that’s really driving the progress here.”

In 2011, when asked if they drove after drinking, 9 out of 10 high schoolers said no. However, the remaining 10% did, amounting to nearly one million teens and 2.4 episodes of drinking and driving. Car crashes remain the leading cause of death for teens in the U.S.; more than 2,000 kids between ages 16 and 19 are killed on the road each year and many deaths are alcohol-related.

(MORE: Is Teen Binge-Drinking Really a Harbinger of Alcoholism?)

Dr. Ruth Shults, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control who was involved in the study, says that in 2010, 1 in 5 teens involved in a fatal crash had alcohol in their system, compared with approximately 33% of the rest of the population. That is, the proportion of drunk driving-related fatal crashes is higher among adults, but Shults notes that even without consuming alcohol, teens are at a higher risk of getting into a car crash.

The researchers also found concerning trends among teens who do drink and drive: for instance, 85% of teens who acknowledged drinking and driving in the previous month also binge drank, consuming at least five drinks in a sitting. Frieden cautioned parents that they need to understand that teens who drink are typically doing so in order to get drunk. He also noted that teens tend to model their parents’ drinking and driving behavior and that there was much parents could do to influence their children’s decisions.

(MORE: Two Questions Can Help Doctors Spot Teen Alcohol Problems)

For example, the study authors recommend that parents and teens create a “parent-teen driving agreement,” which includes safe driving habits such as:

  • Never drink and drive
  • Follow state GDL laws
  • Always wear a seatbelt
  • Limit nighttime driving
  • Limit the number of teen passengers
  • Never use a cell phone or text while driving
  • Obey speed limits

“As a parent of a teen, I know that almost nothing could be worse than having your child die tragically,” said Frieden.

The study is published in the CDC’s weekly Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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