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Teen Drinking and Driving is on the Decline, But Still too Prevalent

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- by Jenara Nerenberg

The Latest and What You Need to Know

glass of whiskey and car keysTeen drinking and driving is on the decline but persists despite nationwide awareness campaigns, graduated licensing programs, and other interventions aimed at reducing teen drinking and driving, suggests a new report in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Researchers discovered that between 1991-2011, the rate of drinking and driving among high school students older than 16 years of age declined from 22.3% to 10.3%, which is a 54% reduction. This may sound like an encouraging statistic—and it is—but the same CDC researchers found that in 2011 alone, 1 in 10 students over the age of 16 reported drinking and driving within the past 30 days and those students were more likely to have been binge drinking as well. 

"It’s good for parents to keep in mind that when teens drink, they usually drink to get drunk," CDC epidemiologist and report author, Ruth Shults, PhD, tells Healthline.

Every year between 1991 and 2011, 10,000-16,000 high school students were surveyed across the United States on binge drinking, alcohol use, and drunk driving. Of the one in 10 students found to have been engaged in drunk driving, 85% also reported binge drinking. The surveys were self-administered questionnaires, which points to the possibility of survey respondents exaggerating or misreporting their alcohol and car usage. And yet according to the authors, not only has teen alcohol consumption declined, but so has teen driving—a trend that may be responsible for the decline in teen drunk driving overall.  

Every state prohibits those under 21 from driving with any level of blood alcohol count (BAC) over 0.00%, whereas adults are permitted a BAC under 0.08%. And those teens who are involved in fatal crashes are more likely to have a BAC of over 0.08%, which is beyond the legally-designated level for adults. Interventions such as zero tolerance laws and graduated driver licensing systems have proven effective, yet with extensive information already in the public domain, teen drinking and driving persists and is still all too common.

Car accidents remain the leading cause of death among those between 16-19 years of age. And the CDC researchers point out that when teens consume alcohol, they are more likely to drink an amount that leads to intoxication. 

Commentary on Future Implications & Interventions

Notable in the MMWR report is the fact that teen drinking and driving is most evident in the upper midwest states and the gulf states, pointing to other, localized demographic factors in teen drunk driving.

Policy makers and school officials should thus focus on what contributing factors may lead to teens drinking and driving, such as alcohol accessibility, unemployment, parental example, availability of sport and alternative recreational activities, and school enforcement. Public health officials have long noted the role that other social and economic factors play in changing health behavior, such as education and media exposure, as well as such far-reaching factors like transportation accessibility and urban planning.

Furthermore, while social marketing efforts with campaign messages like "designated drivers" have profoundly impacted drunk driving awareness among teens in the United States, it is up to local policy officials to tailor such efforts to local contexts--and in the case of the upper midwest and gulf states, there may be contributing factors to teen drunk driving that policy officials have failed to address or link to the prevalence of teen drunk driving in those states. When schools, parents, government officials, and local businesses fall short in doing what they can to prevent teen alcohol abuse--whether it's creating more athletic opportunities, adding alcohol education to school curriculums, or creating engaging activities at home and in our communities--teen drunk driving will persist. 

"Parents play a key role in preventing their teen from drinking and driving," says Shults. Remember that, even though teens can’t legally buy alcohol, they can often get it from home, or the homes of their friends. "Parents should be serious about enforcing a 'no drinking and driving' rule with their teen drivers," cautions Shults. " And, if their teen is ever out riding with friends and the driver begins drinking, the teen needs to feel comfortable calling parents to arrange a safe ride home (such as parents picking them up or paying for a cab)."

Shults suggests that it's essential that parents remember that it takes years of driving to be a truly experienced driver. Parents should think back on their own experience learning to drive. There are ways to help teens be safer on the road. "We recommend that parents and teens complete a parent-teen driving agreement to set and enforce the 'rules of the road' for their new drivers," says Shults.

Teen drinking and driving is still a serious problem in the U.S. Progress has been made in recent years, but, as Shults reminds, "we need to keep up the momentum so we can make further progress in reducing teen crashes."

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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