Although US laws pertaining to a minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) changed many times during the 1970s and 80s, currently all states require a minimum legal age of 21 for both the purchase and public possession of alcohol.
While additional MLDA laws exist, not all states have adopted them, and their strength and enforcement appear to be quite variable. A new study has identified four underage drinking laws that lead to reductions in underage drinking-and-driving fatal crashes: possession, purchase, use and lose, and zero tolerance.
Results will be published in the July issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.
"Most people think that each state has only one underage drinking law, that it is illegal to drink alcohol in public if you are younger than age 21," said James C. Fell, senior program director at the Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation and corresponding author for the study. "In fact, there are at least two core underage drinking laws that each state has: possession and purchase. We also discovered in our research at least 16 laws pertaining to underage drinking, or to underage drinking and driving. Between 1982 and 2004, there was a 62-percent decrease in drinking drivers under age 21 involved fatal crashes compared to a 33-percent decrease in drinking drivers aged 21 or older in fatal crashes. Certainly part of this difference was due to raising the MLDA to 21 during that time period."
Adding to the problem of underage drinking and driving, noted Alexander C. Wagenaar, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Florida, is that the US has relatively early licensure of young drivers … typically 16 in the U.S. compared to 18 in most other developed countries.
"Most youth in the US have easy access to an automobile," said Wagenaar, "along with very limited options in terms of mass transit. The result is common use of cars by teenagers, which contributes to the crash problem since teens have much higher crash rates per mile driven than the general adult population of drivers."
For this study, Fell and his colleagues analyzed data covering a 23-year period from 1982 through to 2004, using the Alcohol Policy Information System (1998-2005), the Digests of State Alcohol-Highway Safety Related Legislation (1983-2006), the Westlaw database, and the Fatality Analysis Reporting System data set (1982-2004). Study authors selected six underage drinking laws for analysis because they could obtain dates when they became effective in each state. Four general impaired-driving and traffic-safety laws were also included because there is substantial evidence of their effectiveness with drivers of all ages.
"We found that four of the six underage drinking laws that we examined were effective in reducing the rate of drinking drivers aged 20 and younger in fatal crashes," said Fell, "while controlling for many other factors that could have accounted for the decrease. Collectively, these four laws – possession, purchase, use and lose, and zero tolerance – save an estimated 864 lives each year."
Fell said these findings confirm earlier research, while using a stronger design. "Our analysis shows that raising the drinking age to 21 in all States was, and continues to be, a very effective measure," he observed.
The study also found that three of the four more general laws that target all drivers were clearly effective: 0.08% blood alcohol concentration illegal per se law, secondary or upgrade to a primary safety-belt law, and an administrative license revocation law.
"We can see that both adults and teens are affected by .08 BAC limits for driving, administrative license suspension laws for driving under the influence of alcohol, and laws requiring safety-belt use," said Wagenaar. "All three of those policies significantly reduced car crash deaths."
"These findings point to the importance of both key underage drinking laws and traffic safety laws in efforts to reduce underage drinking drivers in fatal crashes," said Fell. "If these laws are enforced to the extent possible, further reductions in youthful deaths and injuries could be realized. For example, the 15 states that do not have Use and Lose laws – where there is a driver's license sanction for an underage drinking violation – should seriously consider adopting them. Use and Lose laws were associated with a significant five-percent decrease in the rate of underage drinking drivers in fatal crashes, and are currently saving an estimated 132 lives each year in the 35 states and the District of Columbia that have these laws."
Wagenaar said these findings have clear implications for policy makers. "These comprehensive analyses using the latest data confirm effective steps to reduce deaths due to car crashes: a legal drinking age of 21; lower allowable blood-alcohol limits for drivers; strong laws requiring safety-belt use; and immediate administrative drivers license suspension of anyone caught driving with a blood/breath alcohol level over the legal limit. These laws have already saved thousands of lives per year in the US, and could save even more lives if all states fully implemented them."