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Fatal Crashes Involving Alcohol Resurge Among Young

Report sees bump in road after solid decrease over 20 years

THURSDAY, Dec. 5, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The drive to reduce alcohol-related road accidents among young people has hit a pothole, and federal officials are urging reinvigorated efforts by the states -- and by parents -- to get it back on track.

The record over the last two decades has been impressive, with a 48 percent decrease in fatal alcohol-related crashes and a decrease of 20 percent in all accidents among drivers aged 16 to 24, says the report in tomorrow's issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. But auto accidents are still the leading cause of death for people in that age group, and a worrisome increase for most young drivers began in 1999.

The exception is for "the very youngest drivers, ages 16 and 17," says Randy W. Elder, a resident fellow at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Injury Program, who wrote the report. "There has been a slight decrease for them over the last two years, but everyone else has had a slight increase."

Fatal alcohol-related crashes have dropped by 3 percent in the 16-17 age group since 1999, but they rose by 6 percent for the 18-20 age group and 10 percent for those in the 21-24 age group. A sobering fact is that alcohol-related crashes killed 17,448 people of all ages in the United States last year.

It's hard to say what's behind the increases, Elder says: "We need more research and more data to get a handle on what is responsible." But the immediate effort will be to do more of what's been done over the last two decades, "because we know what works," he says.

"Raising the drinking age to 21 has had a dramatic effect," Elder says. "Also zero tolerance laws, cracking down on anyone under 21 with any amount of alcohol in the system. For the general population, sobriety check-points and lowering the legal limit to 0.08 percent of blood alcohol has been very effective."

One new idea that looks promising is staged licensing, he says. Young drivers go through several stages, beginning with a learning phase when an adult must supervise them when they are behind the wheel. After about six months, they graduate to the next level, where there are such restrictions as not driving at night or having a limited number of passengers -- the restrictions vary state to state -- before being allowed to drive freely.

The federal government is pushing for more intense application of such measures by the states. "And with the graded licensing program, there is a lot of effort to get parents involved," Elder says.

The report is encouraging in one way, says Wendy Hamilton, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, because "it shows that it tells us that zero tolerance, graduated licensing, and increased enforcement are showing an impact."

But the report "also shows that a lot still has to be done, because this is a very high-risk group," she says. "Young people represent 6.9 percent of the driving population, but they are responsible for 13 percent of the alcohol-involved driving accidents."

Parents must get involved because "alcohol is still the number one drug problem for children. They must be sure they are obeying the law and behaving as they should," Hamilton says.

What To Do

Parents can learn more about ways to help children handle alcohol from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Meanwhile, you can learn about graduated driving programs from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

SOURCES: Randy W. Elder, M.Ed, resident fellow, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Injury Program, Atlanta; Wendy Hamilton, national president, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Dallas; Dec, 6, 2002, Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report
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