Young Drivers & Alcohol

Young drivers are over-represented in alcohol related driving accidents. Although drinking, binge drinking, and alcohol related crashes are dropping among young people, specific actions are recommended to further reduce traffic accidents involving alcohol.


Young people are over-represented in driving accidents involving alcohol. In a recent year, people aged 16 to 24 were involved in 28 percent of all alcohol-related driving accidents, although they make up only 14% of the U.S. population. 1 Young people are also over-represented in drinking driver injuries and deaths. 2 Even when their blood alcohol contents (BACs) are not high, young drinkers are involved in driving accidents at higher rates than older drivers with similar BACs. 3

Teens and other young people may be over-represented in drunk driving accidents because, in part, they tend to


Fortunately, driving accidents have been declining among young people, just as they have among the general population. And deaths associated with young drinking drivers (those 16 to 24 years of age) are down dramatically, having dropped 47% in a recent 15-year period. 4

In contrast to popular belief, drinking among young people is dropping and has been doing so for many years. For example, statistics demonstrate that within a period of about 20 years, the proportion of American high school seniors who

Drinking among young people in general continues to drop

The proportion of youths aged 12 through 17 who consumed any alcohol within the previous month has plummeted from 50% in 1979 to 19% in 1998, according to the federal government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Thus, the proportion of young drinkers has dropped in 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available, from one in two to under one in five in 1979. 6


Unfortunately, exaggerating the extent of drinking problems on campus creates a self-fulfilling prophesy. When young people go off to college falsely believe that "everybody is drinking heavily," then they tend to conform in order to fit in as a college student. Thus, those who exaggerate the problem of alcohol abuse actually contribute to the problem and make it worse.

When students find out that most others don't drink as much as they incorrectly believed, they feel empowered to drink less. So, honest accuracy rather than dishonest exaggeration is the most effective way to reduce alcohol abuse and the problems often associated with it. 14

The proportion of both junior and senior high school students who have consumed any alcohol during the year has dropped again for the third year in a row, according to the PRIDE Survey, a nation-wide study of 138,079 students. The Survey is designated by federal law as an official measure of substance use by teen-agers in the United States. 7

Drinking among college students continues to drop

The proportion of American college students who abstain from alcohol has increased 16% between 1989-1991 and 1995-1997, according to the federally-funded CORE Institute at Southern Illinois University. 8

The proportion of first year college students who drink beer has fallen dramatically and recently reached the lowest point in over 30 years. Similar drops have been documented in collegiate wine and spirits consumption over the past decade by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. 9

So-called bingeing is not only down among high school seniors but is also down among college students, and has been declining for a number of years. (Most so-called bingeing is not bingeing at all... See "Binge Drinking")

"Binge" drinking dropped significantly among college students in the United States in the four-year period between a recent study by Dr. Henry Wechsler of Harvard and his earlier study. He also found that the proportion of college students who abstain from alcohol jumped nearly 22% that short period of time. 10

College student "binge" drinking recently reached the lowest level in the nearly twenty years that that the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research (ISR)has conducted its surveys for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The proportion of college students who drink has also reached a record all-time low according to ISR research. 11

College students drink less than people think

College students simply don't drink as much as everyone seems to think they do, according to researchers using Breathalyzers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even on the traditional party nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 66% of the students returned home with absolutely no blood alcohol content; two of every three had not a trace of alcohol in their systems even on party nights.

"I'm not surprised by these results," said Rob Foss, manager of Alcohol Studies for the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, which conducted the study with funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the North Carolina Governor's Highway Safety Program. "Other Breathalyzer studies we have done with drivers and recreational boaters show similar results - less drinking than is generally believed. We have substantial misperceptions about alcohol use in this country."12


While drinking abuse, including drunk driving, is down dramatically among young people, much remains to be done. Too many young people are still needlessly killed or injured as a result of drinking and driving.

We need to reduce Drinking and Driving

We need to reduce Drugging and Driving

For safe driving, never use illegal drugs. Illicit drugs are involved in a large proportion of driving accidents, injuries and deaths. Marijuana and other drugs reduce coordination, reaction time, and other abilities required to drive safely.17 In the case of marijuana, this impairment lasts as long as 24 hours after smoking just one joint. 18

As many as nearly 40% of injured drivers have tested positive for marijuana and the proportion is probably much higher for young drivers. 19 Police almost never test for illegal drug use and many accidents blamed on alcohol are actually caused by illicit drugs. 20

We need to improve Driver Education

Prospective drivers should be taught adequate information on alcohol and driving and they should be tested on this material on their driver's exams. In too many states, the subject is given only brief mention and seven states do not include any information or testing on it in the process of obtaining a driver's license. 21

In driving, beginner's luck isn't good enough. For much helpful information, see Phil Berardelli's practical book, Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens, (McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1996), which is available at your public library or through your library's Inter-Library Loan office.

We need to increase Safe Driving

Don't drive when fatigued. The dangers posed when fatigued are similar to those when intoxicated. Drunk or fatigued drivers both have slowed reactions and impaired judgment. Drivers who drift off cause about 72,500 injuries and deaths every year according to federal estimates. Drowsy driving is a major problem for young people, especially males 18 to 25, because they tend not to get enough sleep. 22

Don't use a car phone, apply make-up, comb your hair, or eat while driving. Drivers using car phones have about the same chance of having an accident as driving drunk! And hands-free cell phones are just as dangerous to use while driving. 23

Avoid driving late on weekends. Alcohol-related driving accidents are much more likely to occur at night and on weekends. 24


References and Readings

Filed Under: Drinking and Driving

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