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Tough Underage Drinking Laws Saving Lives

Study finds raising drinking age, cracking down on fake IDs mean fewer fatalities on the road

TUESDAY, July 1 (HealthDay News) -- Tougher laws on underage drinking have reduced the rate of drunk-driving deaths in the United States, a new analysis concludes.

The study, funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, indicates that state laws which make it illegal to possess or purchase alcohol under the age of 21 have led to an 11 percent drop in alcohol-fueled traffic accident deaths among youth.

And states with robust fake ID laws on the books have experienced a 7 percent drop in alcohol-related car fatalities among drivers below the age of 21, the researchers noted.

"This study once again showed that the core laws that make it illegal for underage individuals to possess and purchase alcohol had a significant effect on underage drinking and driving fatalities," said study author James C. Fell, senior program director of traffic safety and enforcement programs with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, based in Calverton, Md.

The findings were expected to be published in the July issue of Accident Analysis and Prevention.

The study authors pointed out that underage drinking legislation and ID rules vary by state. This is despite the fact that since 1988 -- following the passage of a federal law in 1984 that raised the minimum drinking age to 21 -- all states have enforced the two core laws that make it illegal for those under the age of 21 to purchase and possess alcohol.

Some states have voluntarily established additional punitive measures to discourage underage drinking. For example, some target stores and/or adults that sell or give alcohol to minors, while others have lowered blood alcohol content (BAC) driving thresholds.

Key rental registration, fake ID screening, minimum server/seller ages, night-time youth driving restrictions, and driving suspensions for underage alcohol violations are some of the other key legal provisions available to states.

The current study focused on 16 of the most pertinent underage drinking laws. The authors noted that no single state has embraced all 16 legislative options, although some have gone much further than others in harnessing the law to tackle underage drinking.

For example, Fell pointed out that Utah has adopted a decidedly aggressive posture having put in place 15 of the 16 measures. By contrast, Kentucky has passed just six.

"I think the timing of this report is very good," added Fell, "because there are several states that are currently considering legislation to actually lower the drinking age back down to 18, either for the military or for all citizens. And this research shows that while the laws we now have cannot totally prevent underage drinking and driving, they are effective and do reduce it."

Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of injury prevention and research at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, and medical director of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Chicago, agreed.

"This study confirms that the drinking laws designed to limit alcohol use by drivers less than 21 years [old] has accomplished what these laws were intended to do -- decrease the number of fatal crashes," she said.

More information

For more about underage drinking, visit the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

SOURCES: James C. Fell, senior program director, traffic safety and enforcement programs, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Calverton, Md.; Karen Sheehan, M.D., medical director, Injury Prevention and Research, Children's Memorial Hospital, Chicago, and medical director, Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Chicago; July 2008, Accident Analysis and Prevention

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