The growing awareness of alcohol hazards has made people more cautious of their drinking habits, particularly young adults. At present young adults have the highest prevalence of alcohol consumption than any other age group. They also drink more heavily, experience more negative consequences, and engage in more harmful activities, specifically drunk driving. Although surveys have documented a decline in recent years, consumption rates remain highest from late teen years to the late twenties (Johnston1-3). Despite the long-term decline since 1982 in alcohol related traffic deaths, a 4 percent increase occurred between 1994 and 1995 among young adults age 21 and over (Hingson 4). As alcohol-impaired driving persists, legal and community initiatives intervene to help reduce the problem, as well as, continuing research on possible solutions.
Problems Posed by Alcohol-Impaired Driving:
The biggest problem with drunk driving by young adults is the high rate of traffic accidents. Although young drivers ages 16 through 25 makeup only 15% of U.S. licensed drivers, they constitute 30 percent of all alcohol-related driving fatalities. This is double the amount of licensed drivers in that age group. Inexperience with both drinking and driving may contribute to this disproportionate rate. Nationwide in 1996, people ages 15 to 24 died in fatal motor vehicle crashes and 45 percent of those deaths were a result of alcohol (NHTSA 4). So it comes to no surprise that traffic crashes are the leading cause of death in the United States for people younger than 25 (NCHS 98).
Specific factors that pertain to this fatal problem are blood alcohol content (BAC), failure to wear seatbelts, and inexperienced driving. Of all these, the blood alcohol content or BAC level causes the most risk to young adults’ drinking and driving. National research comparing BAC of drivers in single-vehicle crashes with that of drivers not in crashes reveals that each .02% increase in content level nearly doubles the risk of fatal crash involvement. For drivers under age 21, the risk increases more rapidly with each drink consumed (Hingson 52).
In addition, alcohol-related traffic accidents not only cause high death rates, but they cost society % 45 billion annually in hospital costs, rehabilitation expenses, and lost productivity (NHTSA 3). It also affects traffic safety, in that the amount of arrests of intoxicated drivers prevents the police from arresting other traffic violators. In 1995 more than 1.4 million people were arrested for driving under the influence, this totaled 10 percent of all arrests made in that year (Hingson 1). Problems caused by all these factors have lead to many improvements in traffic safety.
Social and Legal Interventions:
Since 1982 the legal and social interventions have had a major involvement in decreasing the rate of intoxicated drivers. A key social change behind efforts to reduce drunk driving was the establishments of “grass roots” organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), and Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID). These organizations offer support for victims of drunk drivers, as well as involving the public by giving education seminars, monitoring and providing research findings, and presenting information to State legislators (Hingson 219). As a result of their efforts more than 2,000 state laws have been passed to reduce alcohol-impaired driving (NHTSA 1).
Another example of community intervention is that of Massachusetts’, Saving Lives Program, it reduced alcohol-related traffic deaths during its first five years by 42 percent relative to the rest of the state, the greatest declines were found among college-age drivers (Hingson 7).
Legal efforts to reduce alcohol-impaired driving have sought after deterrence laws. These laws prevent alcohol-involved driving by swift, certain, and severe penalties if warranted. They also seek to prevent convicted DUI offenders from repeating their offense (Hingson 228). The general deterrence laws seem to target drinking among persons under age 21 (O’Malley 483). The following information was obtained from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
1 MLDA of 21. This law states that no persons under the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21 is allowed to buy alcohol. NHTSA estimated that MLDA’s of 21 have prevented more than 14,800 traffic deaths since 1976, approximately 700 to 1,000 deaths annually for the past decade.
2 Criminal Per Se Laws. Every state except Massachusetts and South Carolina has adopted laws that make it a criminal offense per se to drive with a BAC level above the state’s limit, which generally either .10 % or .08%. This provision means that prosecutors do not have to introduce evidence other than blood alcohol content to demonstrate impairment, making convictions easier to obtain.
3 Administrative License Suspension. This law allows a police officer or other official to immediately confiscate the license of a driver whose blood alcohol content exceeds the legal limit. Although this law has faced challenges for allegedly imposing additional penalties on already convicted DUI offenders, no state Supreme Court has bothered to consider the challenge.
4 Zero-Tolerance Laws. These laws make it illegal for drivers under age 21 to drive after consuming any alcohol. Federal Legislation adds financial incentive for states that adopt this law.
Although convicted DUI offenders seem more likely to be rearrested or be involved in an accident, most drivers in alcohol-involved crashes have never been convicted. Actually two-thirds of persons arrested for DUI have never been arrested. This statistic emphasizes the importance of social and legal intervention.
Difficulty Implementing Laws:
The laws prohibiting the sale and provision of alcohol to minors have achieved their lifesaving benefits even though they are not well enforced. Research shows that only five of every 100,000 incidents of minor drinking result in a fine, license revocation, or suspension of an alcohol establishment’s license (Wagenaar 42). Acceptance of underage drinking, lack of encouragement to increase enforcement, and lack of resources are often cited as reasons for minimal enforcement of these laws (Wolfson 110).
One other problem implementing these laws has been the difficulty in achieving broad awareness of the law. Studies in California and Massachusetts found that 45 to 50 percent of their young drivers had no inclination the law existed.
Lack of enforcement of related traffic laws also bring about difficulties. People who drive under the influence of alcohol are more likely to speed, run red lights, fail to yield to pedestrians, and fail to wear seatbelts. These risky behaviors parallel the driving inabilities of a drunk, and therefore risk of wrecking heightens. While targeting alcohol-impaired driving, related driving behaviors should be explored as well (Hingson 795).
Although there are some fallbacks to enforcing the laws, the majority of them have brought about lifesaving benefits. The greatest declines in alcohol-related traffic deaths were among youth under 21. From ages 15 to 20, alcohol-related deaths declined by 57 percent between 1982 and 1995 (Recer Internet). Maine was the first to adopt the zero tolerance law and since then 45 states have followed. According to Wagenaar, new surveys show a 10 to 20 percent decrease in alcohol-related car accidents in states with a .02 percent BAC level for youthful drivers. Recently all 50 states have set their BAC level at .02 percent for drivers under age 21, so hopefully every state will see the positive effects (Recer Internet).
As quoted by Wagenaar,”These 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.” In a broader sense, studies show that community and legal intervention make alcohol less accessible and also emphasize the risks of it as it is affecting young adult’s perception of drinking.
(a) Johnston, L. D. College Students and Young Adults. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1996.
(b) Hingson, Ralph. “Prevention of drinking and driving.” Alcohol Health ; Research World 22 Sept. 1996: 1,52,219-229,795.
(c) Campbell, K. E. Trends in Alcohol-Related Fatal Traffic Crashes, U.S. Rockville, MD: U.S. Dept. Health ; Human Services, 1995.
(d) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Traffic Safety Facts 1996. Washington: National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 1996.
(e) National Center for Health Statistics. Health, U.S., 1996-1997, and Injury Chartbook. Hyattsville, MD: Public Health Service, 1997.
(f) O’Malley, P. and Wagenaar. “Effects of minimum drinking age laws on alcohol use, related behaviors, and traffic crash involvement among American youth.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 1991: 478-491.
(g) Wagenaar, A.C. and M. Wolfson. “Law officer’s views on enforcement of the minimum drinking age.” Public Health Reports 1995:
(i) Recer, Paul. “Study: Teen Drinking Drops in States.” American Journal of Public Health. 30 April 2001. 8 May 2001.