Underage Drinking & Driving

Drunk driving is a serious problem in the United States. Despite the efforts of groups like Students Against Drunk Driving, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others, many people continue to make the decision to drink alcoholic beverages and get behind the wheel of a car. Alcohol is a sedative that can impair the ability of a person to respond to stimuli on the roadway, and it also affects the mental functions needed to drive responsibly.

A Closer Look at How Alcohol Affects Driving Abilities

With adults and teens alike, alcohol has the ability to affect mental function with as little as 0.02 percent blood alcohol content. The amount of alcohol that it takes to reach this level will depend on the alcoholic content in the beverage as well as the person’s body weight. However, generally speaking, it takes a very small amount of alcohol to begin to affect a person’s mental capabilities. With even a small amount of alcohol in a person’s system, the ability to make rational judgment calls is limited. Coordination needed to safely operate a vehicle and to respond to outside stimuli is also reduced. Vision and hearing, both of which are needed to drive safely are altered by as much as 30 percent or more. Drivers will have a more difficult time judging speed and distance, operating the vehicle, reacting to hazards on the road and more.

The Problem With Underage Drinking
According to a 2009 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 42 percent of high school students surveyed had at least one alcoholic beverage within the previous month. Ten percent of those surveyed drove a vehicle after drinking, and 28 percent were a passenger in a vehicle where the driver had been drinking alcohol. These statistics are indicative of how prevalent underage drinking is and how drinking can impair the ability of teens to make wise decisions. Furthermore, it should be noted that teens and underage young adults often have a lower average body weight than older adults. This means that they often can reach that dangerous level of 0.002 percent blood alcohol content sooner than an adult can.

Unskilled Drivers
Currently, there are approximately 13 to 14 million drivers licensed across the fifty states who are between the age of 15 and 20. This age group is often considered a high risk group of drivers for several reasons. For one, young drivers lack the experience and skills of older drivers. They have not yet had enough personal experience behind the wheel to drive safely, to identify more potential road hazards and to drive defensively in reaction to other drivers. They also tend to drive more aggressively than older drivers. Drivers in this age group, even when unimpaired by the effects of alcohol, are responsible for approximately 30 percent of the total costs related to motor vehicle injuries in the United States. Furthermore, it is estimated about 350,000 teens in this age group are treated in emergency rooms for motor vehicle accidents, and about 3,000 teens die in the United States each year from car accidents.

Underage Drinking and Car Accidents

The statistics regarding the young drivers represent how the lack of skill and experience behind the wheel affects the ability for young drivers to safely operate a vehicle even when not impaired by alcohol. When an underage driver has been drinking, however, their senses, motor functions and ability to make good decisions are impaired. This creates an even more dangerous situation for young drivers, the passengers in their vehicle and others who share the roadways with them. In 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 5,148 drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 years old were involved in traffic fatalities. Of these, almost half involved driver fatalities. Furthermore, approximately one-third of these accidents involved an underage driver who had been drinking. Twenty-eight percent of those drivers killed in accidents in 2009 had a blood alcohol content level of 0.08 percent or higher. This is far higher than the amount of alcohol necessary to impair judgment and motor function. It should also be noted that about two percent of underage drivers involved in a fatal crash were repeat offenders with a previous Driving While Intoxicated conviction.

Preventive Measures

The good news is that the number of alcohol-related car accidents involving underage drivers has decreased by approximately 76 percent between 1982 and the present, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, car accidents remain the leading cause of death for teenagers in this age group in the United States, and many of these accidents are the result of underage drinking. These accidents and the related deaths are preventable. Educating teens about their increased risk when driving even unimpaired as well as about how alcohol affects their bodies is a first step. For many teens, drinking is a rite of passage, and many will continue to do so even with education about the dangers of drinking. Providing teens with safe options to travel to their homes or other intended destinations after drinking is a necessity even after steps to educate teens about the dangers of drinking and driving have been made. When teens do drink, they need to have a safe way to get home. If you are the parent of a teen, ensure that your child knows that he can call you for a safe, judgment-free ride home at any time. Furthermore, provide your child with cash to use for cab fare and the number of a taxi service to use as needed. Talk to him about choosing a designated driver when out with friends and about the dangers of being a passenger in the car of someone who has been drinking.

Underage drinking and related underage drinking and driving remain problems in the United States. While some success has been made to bring awareness to the dangers of underage drinking and driving after drinking, the issue remains a problem that requires further education of young drivers and their parents. Car accidents can cause costly damage to vehicles and property as well as serious and even fatal injuries to drivers, passengers and bystanders. By following a few preventive steps, many of these accidents can be avoided.

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