Ten percent of teenagers today say they drove while under the influence of alcohol during the preceding 30 days, compared to 22% in 1991; a drop of 54%, says a Vital Signs study published by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Although this is welcome news, nearly one million teenagers (aged 16+) drove under the influence of alcohol in 2011. A teenager has a threefold higher risk of being involved in a fatal car crash than an adult, the authors wrote. If a teenager drinks and drives, the risk of crashing a vehicle or running somebody over is considerably higher than for anybody else.

CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., said:

“We are moving in the right direction. Rates of teen drinking and driving have been cut in half in 20 years. But we must keep up the momentum — one in 10 high school teens, aged 16 and older, drinks and drives each month, endangering themselves and others.”

The CDC gathered and analyzed data from the YRBS (Youth Risk Behavior Surveys) from 1991 to the end of 2011. (More information about YRBS can be found at the end of this article). In these surveys, high school students are asked whether they have been behind the wheel of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol at least once during the preceding 30 days. The authors focused on teenagers aged 16 years or more.

Below are some highlighted data from the study:

  • Teenagers were involved in about 2.4 million episodes of drinking and driving each month in 2011
  • Some of the children also engaged in risky behavior at least once a month
  • 18% of males aged 18 years or more were involved in drinking and driving at least once during the previous 30 days
  • 6% of 16-year-olds drank and drove at least once during the preceding 30 days
  • 85% of those who said they were involved in drinking and driving during the previous thirty days also said they had been binge drinking (consuming at least 5 alcoholic drinks over a short period)
  • 20% of teenage drivers who are involved in a fatal car crash had some alcohol in their system in 2010. 81% of them had BACs (blood alcohol concentrations) higher than the adult legal limit.

Car crash scene with police nobody hurt
1 in 5 teenagers drivers involved in fatal car crashes had some alcohol in their blood

Pamela S. Hyde, the Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), said:

“Teens learn from adults. 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.”

According to the CDC, a great deal of effort has gone into bringing down the incidence of drinking and driving in the USA. Some efforts have been effective, including the introduction of laws across the nation that make it illegal to sell alcohol to people under 21 years of age, and laws that prohibit those under 21 from driving after drinking any amount of alcohol.

The graduated driver licensing system, which exists in every state, allows teenagers to gain certain privileges over time, such as driving with passengers or driving at night.

Restricting teenage driving saves lives – researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, USA, published a study in July 2006 which showed that placing restrictions on teenage driving can save many young lives.

Teenagers’ road safety is strongly influenced by parental roles. Parents can model proper driving behavior; they may also consider using such tools as parent-teen driving agreements with their teenage kids.

Safe driving habits for teenagers include:

  • Never drinking and driving
  • Following state Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) laws
  • Always buckling up (wearing a seatbelt)
  • Learning to recognize potentially hazardous driving situations
  • Assuming that other drivers will make mistakes
  • Positioning and controlling your car so that you can maneuver safely if a hazard develops
  • Read the road – scan far ahead so that you can react safely to approaching situations
  • Frequently scan to the side and behind for approaching or passing vehicles
  • Before changing speed or direction, scan thoroughly

For this report, the CDC authors used data from the YRBSS. The YRBSS monitors six types of health-risk behaviors among young people that may contribute to the leading causes of disability and death. The YRBSS is part of the CDC.

The risky behaviors include:

  • Behaviors which contribute to unintentional violence or injuries
  • The use of alcohol or other drugs
  • Tobacco use
  • Unhealthy eating habits
  • Physical inactivity
  • Sexual behaviors which can lead to unplanned pregnancies and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), including HIV infection

YRBSS also measures obesity and asthma prevalence among youth and young adults

Written by Christian Nordqvist