Fewer Teens Are Drinking and Driving—but Don’t Celebrate Yet


We may think of teens as irresponsible drivers, but new information may change that: There’s been a 54 percent drop in drinking and driving among high school teens during the past two decades.

Several factors have brought us to this place, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the numbers this week in a Vital Signs report that covered the years 1991 to 2011. Over the years stricter laws, more involvement from parents, and a shift in how people think about drinking and driving have all played a role in the drastic change in teens’ behavior.

“Now there is really a social understanding of how dangerous drinking and driving is and how unacceptable it is because it endangers not just the driver and passengers but the whole community,” CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said during a telebriefing.

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Despite the dramatic decline in drinking and driving rates, teens aren’t exactly off the hook: Last year they engaged in 2.4 million episodes of drinking and driving a month—a month—and 85 percent of teens who said they drank and drove in the past month also reported binge drinking (that’s five or more drinks within a short amount of time).

It’s a generalization to say that adolescents are reckless when they get behind the wheel, but parents of even the most upstanding teens have spent long, anxiety-filled nights waiting for their teen drivers to return home safely.

“As a parent of a teen,” Frieden said, “I know that almost nothing could be worse than having your child die tragically and preventively.

So what exactly has changed over the past 20 years? Every state has adopted zero tolerance laws when it comes to underage drinking and driving, making it illegal to drive with any amount of alcohol in the bloodstream.

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In that time states have also created graduated driver’s license laws, which allow young drivers to get driving experience under low-risk conditions. However, the rules governing those laws are not the same in each state.

Parents modeling safe drinking behavior for their kids has been crucial as well in reducing drinking and driving numbers. But even more people can have an influence, Pamela S. Hyde, the Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said in a news release.

“Teens learn from adults,” said Pamela S. Hyde, the Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “That is why it is critically important that parents, teachers, coaches and all caring adults in a young person’s life talk with them early and often about the dangers of underage alcohol use as well as drinking and driving.”

Teen drinking behavior is the stuff of much study, since certain behaviors started at a young age tend to stick around as people get older. General underage drinking trends seem to support the drinking and driving trends: The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that drinking among 12 to 20-year-olds has been on a downward trend, going from 28.8 percent in 2002 to 26.3 percent in 2010.

But with drinking—and binge drinking—still major concerns, Frieden said states and communities need to enforce policies, and healthcare professionals can screen teenagers for risky behaviors.

“More needs to be done to protect young drivers,” Frieden said. 

How do you think teen drunk driving rates can be cut even more? Let us know in the comments.

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Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal, and has gotten in a boxing ring. Email Jeannine | TakePart.com