WEDNESDAY, June 2, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Drinking and driving among college students is still a major public health problem, new research reveals, with one in five admitting to driving while drunk and 40 percent acknowledging they have ridden with a drunk driver.
Equally worrisome, their tendency to drive under the influence soars when they hit the minimum legal drinking age of 21.
The findings were gleaned from a study co-authored by Amelia M. Arria, director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, that followed more than 1,250 first-year college students enrolled at a large mid-Atlantic university.
"Drinking and driving endangers the safety of not only the drinking driver and passengers, but also other individuals on the road," Arria said in a news release. "College students have limited driving experience, making drinking and driving possibly even more hazardous. [While] other studies have examined drinking and driving among college students, to our knowledge this is the first to have examined how the behavior changes over time in the same sample of students."
Arria and her colleagues report their findings in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Study participants were interviewed once per year for four years to gauge alcohol-related traffic risk behavior, including riding with a driver who was intoxicated, driving after drinking any amount of alcohol, and driving while drunk.
The authors found that while male college students were more likely to engage in such risky behavior, both male and female college students were likely to do so to some degree.
Over the course of a year, half of the under-age students said they drove after drinking and 20 percent said they drove while drunk. Among 20-year-olds, 43 percent said they had ridden with a drunk driver.
What's more, the authors observed noticeable increases in all three measures of alcohol-related traffic risk after students reached the legal drinking age of 21.
"Other studies have demonstrated that freshmen tend to drink more than upperclassmen," Robert B. Voas, a senior scientist and director of the Impaired Driving Center at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, noted in the same news release. "This may have led some to the erroneous conclusion that existing college alcohol-safety programs are effective. This study tends to demonstrate that alcohol-related problem behaviors increase with age, perhaps due to greater opportunities for risk taking such as owning a car or the ability to patronize bars and purchase alcohol. If college programs were successful, we should be able to at least prevent an increase in risky drinking and driving during the period the students are at the university."
Both Arrias and Voas said that the study findings led them to conclude that reducing the minimum legal age for drinking would be a bad idea.
"In fact," said Arria, "lowering the drinking age to 18 would likely result in a surge of alcohol-related traffic problems, given that younger students would have even less driving experience."
For more on college drinking, visit the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.