Image of a Traffic Light


NHTSA People Saving People

Technology Transfer Series

Number 261 October 2001

Decline In Youth Alcohol-Related Fatalities Attributed To Four Factors

Drinking and driving in the United States, as measured by alcohol involvement in fatal crashes in NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), decreased substantially from 1982 to 1998. The number of traffic fatalities involving alcohol dropped 36 percent, and those involving at least one driver or pedestrian with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10 or above dropped 39 percent. This decrease was led by young drivers under the age of 21. The number of young drivers in fatal crashes with a positive BAC dropped 61 percent, from 4,393 in 1982 to 1,714 in 1998. While 43 percent of young drivers in fatal crashes had a positive BAC in 1982, only 21 percent did in 1998. The number of drivers over age 21 in fatal crashes dropped 33 percent.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) contracted with Preusser Research Group to review data on youth drinking and driving, to analyze differences across the states, and to examine evidence of the effectiveness of laws and programs that may have affected youth drinking and driving.

Regional and State Trends
Youth drinking driver fatal crash involvements decreased substantially in all regions of the country and in most states. Drinking driver involvements per population decreased by more than 50 percent in 45 states. Many states followed the national pattern of a substantial drop from 1982 through the early 1990s. In 1998, youth drinking driver fatal crashes were about 5 per 100,000 population (or even lower) in the 10 best states and about 15 in the five worst states.

Youth Drinking
Youth drinking also decreased from 1982 to 1998, but not as much as youth drinking and driving. Evidence from Monitoring the Future and other surveys shows a consistent drop in self-reported drinking by both high school and college students under 21 and this occurred fairly uniformly across all regions of the country. Most youth still drink, however. A majority drink at least monthly and a substantial minority binge drink regularly. Since about 1993, youth drinking has increased gradually, but youth drinking driver involvements in fatal crashes have remained approximately constant.

The decline in drinking accounts for some, but by no means all, of the decline in drinking and driving. Youth have separated their drinking from their driving more in 1998 than they did in 1982, and more than drivers over age 21 have. Drinking and driving has become less socially acceptable among youth, as measured by student attitudes and by the use of designated drivers.

Minimum Legal Drinking Age Laws
Thirty-six states raised their minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) to 21 between 1982 and 1987 so that by 1988, MLDA was in effect in all states. MLDA 21 laws clearly reduced youth drinking and driving by reducing alcohol availability and by establishing the threat of punishment for alcohol use.

But MLDA 21 laws do not work particularly well in practice, as youth still can obtain alcohol relatively easily and underage drinkers are highly unlikely to be detected and punished. MLDA 21 laws may have encouraged youth to separate their drinking from their driving. However, the observations that youth drinking and driving decreased substantially more than youth drinking, and that both decreased in states that had MLDA 21 laws in the 1980s, suggest that MLDA 21 laws were not the only influence on youth drinking and driving during this period.

Zero Tolerance Laws
A zero tolerance law sets a maximum BAC of 0.02 or less for drivers under age 21 and suspends or revokes an offender's driver's license. All states and the District of Columbia adopted these laws between 1990 and 1998. Zero tolerance laws also have reduced youth drinking and driving. They likely did so for two reasons: by deterring youth through fear of losing their driver's license; and by reinforcing broad community disapproval of youth driving after drinking.

Youth Programs
States and communities conducted extensive youth drinking and driving programs in the past two decades. These programs seek to motivate youth not to drink and drive through positive means; by education on crash and injury risks posed by drinking and driving and the effects of alcohol use and abuse; by providing positive role models that discourage alcohol use; by establishing youth norms that do not include alcohol; and by encouraging youth activities that do not involve or lead to alcohol use. Other organizations such as insurance companies, automobile manufacturers, MADD, and many others did the same through public education and specific program activities.

There is little direct evidence of the effects produced by these activities. Very few have been evaluated to determine their effects on youth knowledge, attitudes, behavior, traffic violations, or crashes. A few well-organized and well-funded community programs have reduced youth drinking and driving after drinking. Some school programs have affected students' knowledge and attitudes and may have affected their behavior. There is no direct proof that most of the youth traffic safety program activities not involving laws and enforcement had any direct effect on youth drinking and driving. The accumulation of information, education, skills, and role models provided by these programs may have been a crucial influence in changes in youth attitudes, behavior, and crashes. There is no strong research evidence, however.

Measures Not Directed at Youth
In general, states that reduced overall drinking and driving the most from 1982 to 1998 also reduced youth drinking and driving the most. This suggests that states that took effective measures to reduce overall drinking and driving also saw the effect of these measures on their youth. In addition, travel, employment, and unemployment trends that influenced overall drinking and driving likely also affected youth drinking and driving.

Three influences on youth drinking and driving are well documented and well understood: population changes, legal drinking age increases, and zero tolerance laws. However, these three by themselves account for only a portion of the observed decrease in youth drinking and driving. Influences from other factors - youth programs, other drunk driving measures, and factors completely apart from driving or drinking - can only be inferred. The most prudent strategy would be to improve MLDA 21 and zero tolerance law enforcement, continue the programs directed at youth, and strengthen measures against driving after drinking for persons of all ages.


For a copy of Determine Why There are Fewer young Alcohol-Impaired Drivers, (82 pages) write to the Office of Research and Traffic Records, NHTSA, NTS-31, 400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC, 20590, or send a fax to (202) 366-7096, or download from Linda Cosgrove, Ph.D., was the contract manager.

U.S. Department
of Transportation
National Highway
Traffic Safety

400 Seventh Street, S.W. NTS-31
Washington, DC 20590

Traffic Tech is a publication to disseminate information about traffic safety programs, including evaluations, innovative programs, and new publications. Feel free to copy it as you wish.

If you would like to receive a copy contact:

Linda Cosgrove, Ph.D., Editor, Evaluation Staff
Traffic Safety Programs
(202) 366-2759, fax (202) 366-7096