THURSDAY, April 21, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The decline in drinking-related auto accidents that began in the early 1990s may be over: A new survey suggests Americans are hitting the bottle more often now before they hit the road.
Self-reported alcohol-impaired driving episodes went down by slightly more than 1 percent a year from 1993 to 1997, dropping from 123 million incidents to 116 million, according to the report, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Unfortunately, that number has started rising again, increasing by 37 percent between 1997 and 1999 alone, and reaching a total of 159 million annually by 2002.
"This is a real call for action, because we clearly are going in the wrong direction," said survey co-researcher Dr. Robert H. Brewer, an alcohol team leader at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
The number of people killed in drunk-driving accidents also has risen, from 16,573 in 1999 to 17,013 in 2003, added Dr. Kyran P. Quinlan, who worked on the report while at the CDC. Quinlan is now is a clinical associate in pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
Auto accidents remain the leading cause of death of Americans between 1 and 34 years of age, the CDC said, and 30 percent of Americans can expect to be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetimes. The economic cost of these crashes is estimated at more than $50 billion a year.
These latest driving-while-impaired numbers come from annual telephone surveys involving more than 100,000 Americans. Interviewers asked respondents if they drank, the ways in which they drank, and questions such as "During the past month, how many times have you driven when you've had too much to drink?"
According to Brewer, the most striking finding was that "the increase in accidents goes hand in hand with binge drinking," defined as having at least five drinks at a time. People who reported binge drinking were 13 times more likely to report driving while they were alcohol-impaired, and most of them said they often had far more than five drinks per binge.
The study was not able to determine the reasons alcohol consumption and binge drinking are on the rise, Quinlan said. But he believes that one "reasonable speculation is that we thought we were done with the problem and got complacent."
Until this recent upswing, "we had tremendous success in changing social attitudes. Twenty or 30 years ago, people would joke about 'one for the road,' but they weren't doing that anymore," Quinlan said.
However, "now there has been some backtracking," he added.
A number of things can and should be done to reverse the trend, mostly on the state and local level, Brewer said. These include increasing taxes on alcohol, better enforcement of the ban on 18-year-old drinking laws, and decreasing the number of liquor stores and bars.
Americans also need to be reminded more often about current health recommendations for alcohol consumption -- no more than one drink a day for a woman, two drinks a day for a man, Brewer said.
In addition to auto accidents, excessive drinking also causes "a whole host of other problems," such as unwanted pregnancies and serious medical disorders, he added.
Get the whole story on alcohol and health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.