Strong Alcohol Policies Lead to Fewer Drunk-Driving Deaths Among Youth

Posted on: February 14, 2017 Topics: alcohol, drunk driving

Stronger alcohol policies protect young people from dying in crashes caused by drunk driving, according to a new study co-authored by School of Public Health researchers.

The study, published online in the journal Pediatrics and led by Boston Medical Center, supports the importance of comprehensive alcohol-control policies to reduce the number of young people who die in alcohol-related crashes.

Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death among young people in the US. In Massachusetts, 40 percent of deadly car crashes involve a drunk driver, and the state falls within the top 25 percent in rates of young people killed in drunk-driving crashes.

“Half of all young people who die in crashes are driven by someone who has been drinking,” said lead author Scott Hadland, a pediatrician at BMC and the study’s corresponding author. “But with stronger alcohol policies at the state level, we saw a significantly lower likelihood of alcohol-related deaths.”

The study used an alcohol policy scale that assessed 29 alcohol policies across the US, which were designed to reduce alcohol consumption or prevent impaired driving, and cross-referenced them with the number of people ages 20 and younger who died in crashes involving alcohol over the course of 13 years (approximately 85,000). States were ranked based on how restrictive their alcohol laws were, including higher alcohol taxes and zero-tolerance policies for young people drinking and driving.

“We’ve seen research that shows the relationship between specific alcohol laws and drunk driving deaths, but no one has looked at the broader picture of the policy environment in different states,” said senior author Timothy Naimi, an associate professor of public health and medicine and a general internal medicine physician at BMC.

SPH co-authors included Ziming Xuan, associate professor of community health sciences, and Timothy Heeren, professor of biostatistics.

Researchers found that as state alcohol laws became more restrictive, the likelihood of a young person being killed in a drunk-driving crash decreased and led to less alcohol consumption as a whole. Additionally, almost half of underage youth who died in alcohol-related crashes were passengers, not drivers, and about 80 percent of those passengers were being driven by adults aged 21 or older who had been drinking.

Most of the deadly crashes happened during the weekend, in the evening or at night. The impact of state alcohol policies on drunk-driving deaths was consistent for males and females, and generally held for both drivers and passengers.

“Since most young people who died as passengers in a car were driven by an adult over 21 who had been drinking, alcohol laws that prevent adult drinking are also critical,” said Naimi. “We must also focus on strategies that reduce excessive drinking, rather than focusing exclusively on interventions to prevent driving among those who are already impaired.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Lisa Chedekel

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