Study Finds Youth Drinkers More Likely to Drink and Driver, Get in Alcohol-related Crashes as Adults

in Health & Medicine, News Releases, School of Public Health
January 9th, 2002

Contact: Laura J. Williams, 617/638-5432 |
Contact: Owen Eagan, 617/558-7800 |

Boston, MA — The younger people are when they start drinking alcohol, the more likely they are to drive after excessive drinking and get into alcohol-related car crashes over the course of their adult lives, according to a new study conducted at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

The BU study, published this week in the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention, shows that adults who began drinking before age 14 are seven times more likely to report ever being in an alcohol-related motor vehicle crash than those who began drinking after age 21. In addition, adults who began drinking before age 14 are three times more likely to report driving after drinking too much than those who began after age 21. The magnitude of differences in both categories becomes smaller as the age of drinking onset approaches 21.

The study resulted from a further analysis of the recent National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey, which found a strong correlation between age of first alcohol use and the prevalence of lifetime dependence. The BU study is particularly important because it looks at all people who report drinking in their lifetime, not just those who are alcohol dependent. The study also statistically controlled for the years of drinking and how often people were drunk and still found that the younger people started drinking, the more often they got into alcohol-related car crashes.

“We knew that a legal drinking age of 21 reduced alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes among drivers under 21,” says Ralph Hingson, associate dean for research at BU’s School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “This study shows that the potential traffic safety benefits of delaying the use of alcohol extends well beyond the age of 21. It gives us all the more reason to step up enforcement of the legal drinking age.”

The BU School of Public Health’s research on age of drinking onset spurred Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to add three words to their mission statement: To stop drunk driving, to support victims of this violent crime and prevent underage drinking.

“This study shows that both youth and adults need to accept responsibility for preventing underage drinking,” said MADD State Executive Director Barbara Harrington. MADD is planning a Youth Summit May 5-7, for high-school aged youths from across the state who will develop proposals to curb underage drinking.

MADD recently sent applications to every high school in the state and to all state-elected officials in an effort to help identify student leaders for the gathering. MADD’s goal is to have at least 80 high school students attend. The summit, held at the Westin Waltham Hotel, will appoint delegates who will propose policy recommendations. The student participants will announce the recommendations at a press conference at the State House.

“The summit will enable young people and adults to discuss policy recommendations and will help foster an ongoing dialogue between them,” says Harrington. “Underage drinking is everyone’s responsibility.”

In addition to the BU study, MADD cites a number of startling statistics as a testament to the necessity of the summit:

- Alcohol-related traffic deaths are on the rise for the first time in two decades.

- Alcohol kills 6.5 times more young people than all other illicit drugs combined.

- Eight young Americans die every day in alcohol-related traffic crashes.

- Underage drinking costs Massachusetts $934 million annually.

Hingson will present the results of the BU School of Public Health study at the National Leadership Conference to Keep Children Alcohol-Free in Washington, DC on Thursday, January 10. The conference is sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Hingson serves as a national expert on community and legal interventions to reduce alcohol-impaired driving and underage drinking. He is known for his research on the effects of zero tolerance for youth and 0.8 percent legal blood alcohol limits on reducing the number of fatal injuries.

Founded in 1976, the Boston University School of Public Health is committed to offering graduate education that meets the changing needs of working professionals and shaping a healthier and safer world through applied public health research.

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