Teens drink,drive less in states with stricter limits

The Associated Press
Tuesday May 01, 2001

WASHINGTON — Teens’ drinking and driving has dropped by nearly one-fifth in states with stricter blood-alcohol limits for young people, according to a 30-state survey of high school seniors. 

The survey shows that policies that discourage risky drinking can have an impact on society, said Alexander C. Wagenaar of the University of Minnesota, first author of an account appearing Tuesday in the American Journal of Public Health. 

Wagenaar said that all 50 states have now set the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level at .02 percent for drivers under 21 so the effects should eventually be seen in every state. 

There is a different threshold for adults, however. For at least 19 states and the District of Columbia, the legal limit for adults is now .08 percent. A federal law passed last year requires a .08 level in all states by 2004. States that fail to comply could lose federal highway funds. 

“The (BAC) law for young people reinforces the law that moved the legal drinking age up to 21,” said Wagenaar. 

He said data from the new survey is consistent with other studies that have shown a 10 to 20 percent decline in alcohol-related car crashes in states with a .02 blood alcohol level for youthful drivers. 

In the new study, researchers addressed a series of questions about drinking and driving to 5,000 high school seniors in 30 states. The survey is identical in method and questions to one that began in the late 1970s, said Wagenaar.  

As a result, he said, it accurately measures the effects over time of specific laws on the drinking and driving habits of young people. 

The survey compared answers to the questions collected before the youth BAC laws were passed, with answers from after the laws were passed.  

The dates of passage in each state varied, but the surveys were adjusted so that the time pattern was the same, he said. 

The study found that after the BAC laws were passed, 19 percent fewer youthful drivers admitted that they had driven a car, truck or motorcycle after drinking any alcoholic beverage. 

Asked if they had driven after five or more drinks, 23 percent fewer admitted that they had taken the wheel. 

Wagenaar said teens also are showing they are more cautious about others drinking. He said the survey found that 7.1 percent fewer teens admitted riding with drivers who had been drinking, and 13.5 percent fewer said they had ridden with a driver who had consumed five or more drinks. 

“That is a good sign because teens frequently socialize in groups,” said Wagenaar. He said the study suggests that there is an active effort by the teens to avoid riding with someone who is alcohol-impaired. 

In a broader sense, said Wagenaar, the study shows that policies and laws that make alcohol less accessible and which emphasize its possible risks is affecting a gradual shift in the perception of the role of drinking in society. 

“Policies, such as raising the drinking age to 21 or tighter regulation on alcohol sales, help to engender a norm that alcohol is not the same as soda pop, that it can be a risky substance and that it is not without hazards,” said Wagenaar. 

A growing awareness of the hazards of alcohol, he said, “helps create the norm that when you use alcohol, you have to think it through and use it in a low-risk way.” 

The American Journal of Public Health is a monthly publication of the American Public Health Association. 


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