TUESDAY, April 7, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Not all laws are created equal when it comes to reducing the number of drinking-related auto accidents, say researchers who analyzed the impact of underage drinking laws and alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
Most effective, they found, are laws targeting the purchase and possession of alcohol by youth, including use-and-lose laws that allow the suspension of a driver's license for any underage alcohol violation and zero-tolerance laws that make it illegal for young people to drive with any amount of alcohol in their system.
"Raising the drinking age to 21 has resulted in significant reductions in underage drinking and driving fatal crashes," said the study's lead author, James C. Fell, director of traffic safety and enforcement programs for the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, in Calverton, Md., which did the study. "While there have been studies about drinking age, what happens when you lower it or raise it, there were other components of underage drinking laws we needed to look at."
Laws on purchase and possession of alcohol and zero tolerance save an estimated 732 lives a year, according to the study. And the researchers theorized that an additional 165 could be saved if all states were to adopt use-and-lose laws.
The researchers used information from four national databases and analyzed six laws that states had enacted to try to reduce the incidence of underage drinking and driving and four laws aimed at drivers of all ages.
Use-and-lose laws resulted in 5 percent fewer accidents attributed to drinking and driving, the study found.
"Thirty-six states plus D.C. have such a law," Fell said. "I would ask the 14 states that don't to strongly consider adapting that legislation because, if they do and publicize it, they'll see a significant decrease in drinking-and-driving accidents."
When the entire driving population was considered, the researchers found that laws setting the legal drinking limit at .08 percent, mandating seat belt use and authorizing license revocation were the most effective at reducing alcohol-related fatal crashes.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young people have a greater risk than older people of being involved in a crash under any circumstance but especially when alcohol is involved. Of those 16 to 20 years old who died in motor vehicle crashes in 2006, for example, 19 percent had consumed an alcoholic beverage, the CDC says.
The culture and drinking habits in which a young person was reared also affected the incidence of drinking and driving fatalities, the researchers said.
"We found a direct relationship between beer consumption per capita between drinking and driving accidents," Fell said. "We'd like to have underage beer drinking per capita, but that information isn't available."
Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the "the effectiveness of laws on underage drinking found by Dr. Fell are consistent with research we've done in the past."
"This is an issue that has had lots of different solutions thrown at it -- some of them effective and some of them not," he added. "There are some laws that may not be effective and may not be worth the time."
But, he said, "when public service campaigns are backed up by some sort of enforcement campaign, then they're quite effective."
The results of Fell's study appear online April 7 in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have more on underage drinking and driving.