One of the most comprehensive studies on the minimum drinking age shows that laws aimed at preventing consumption of alcohol by those under 21 have significantly reduced drinking-related fatal car crashes.
Specifically, the study published in the July 2008 issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention found that laws making it illegal to possess or purchase alcohol by anyone under the age of 21 had led to an eleven percent drop in alcohol-related traffic deaths among youth; secondly, they found that states with strong laws against fake IDs reported seven percent fewer alcohol-related fatalities among drivers under the age of 21.
The study, led by James C. Fell, M.S., of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), accounted for a variety of factors, such as improved safety features in cars, better roadways and tougher adult drunk driving laws, that are supposed to have contributed to a reduction in fatalities involving underage drivers who have consumed alcohol. Fell's research controlled for more variables than any other previous study on the topic, accounting for regional and economic differences, improvements in roadways and vehicles, and changes that lowered the illegal blood alcohol content for driving to .08. Yet, according to Fell, the eleven percent drop in youth fatalities is a "conservative" figure.
Fell notes that his research is more sophisticated and comprehensive than previous studies that have looked at the drinking age. "There has been evidence since the 1980s that an increase in the drinking age to 21 was having an impact on traffic deaths," Fell said. "But this is the first time we've been able to tease out the real effect, free of the variables that had been used to question the validity of the evidence."
In addition to providing comprehensive evidence of the life-saving impact of minimum drinking age laws, the authors of the new study found that tougher sanctions against fake identification cards may represent the second-best legislative tool that states have in combating drunk driving deaths among young people.
"States that merely confiscate a fake ID, or just give a slap on the wrist to the user, are passing up a significant opportunity to save lives," said Fell. "We found a seven percent drop in youth alcohol-related fatalities in states that are willing to take strong actions, such as automatically suspending the driver's license of a young person caught with a fake ID."
Minimum legal drinking age of 21 (MLDA 21) laws have many components, which target outlets that sell alcohol to minors; adults who provide alcoholic beverages to minors; and minors who purchase or attempt to purchase, possess, or consume alcohol. In addition, there are companion laws that provide for lower blood alcohol content (BAC) limits for underage drivers and other legislation, such as laws that require registration of beer keg purchases and make hosts liable for the actions of underage drinking guests. The authors report great variability in how states use, adopt and implement legislation to reduce underage drinking. Such laws vary considerably from state to state, and no one state has adopted all the pieces of legislation aimed at preventing young people under the age of 21 from consuming alcohol.
The researchers looked at data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting system (FARS) (a database of all police- reported motor vehicle crashes resulting in at least one fatality) between 1982 and 1990 and then assessed the strength of each state's legislation (using a scoring system) aimed at preventing underage drinking. Based on the FARS data for each state, the authors were able to determine the impact of the state's individual laws on underage drinking and driving fatalities.
To reduce youth drinking and alcohol-related problems, the federal government passed legislation in 1984 that provided for a uniform minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21 throughout the United States. Threatened by the loss of federal highway funds, by 1988, every state that had a lower MLDA had raised its minimum legal age for both the purchase and possession of alcohol to 21. All the states and the District of Columbia also have passed laws prohibiting the furnishing or selling of alcohol to those younger than age 21, many at the same time as they passed the two "core MLDA laws."
Considerable evidence exists that such laws can influence underage alcohol related traffic fatalities. From 1988 to 1995, alcohol-related traffic fatalities for youth aged 15€ declined from 4187 to 2212, a 47% decrease, with wide variability in these declines between states. But until now, Fell said, it had been difficult for researchers to pinpoint the precise effect of the change in the drinking age because of other confounding factors.
"Some have argued that the declining numbers are due to a general decrease in drunk driving, or because of the lowering of the BAC limit, or better cars and better roads. But we controlled for all of these to the extent possible in this study."
According to MADD, in 2008 the following states have introduced legislation to lower the drinking age: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Kentucky (for military), South Carolina (for military), Vermont (to study lowering the MLDA), South Dakota (as a ballot initiative) and Missouri (as a ballot initiative).
The study was funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program (SAPRP) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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