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Status Report, Vol. 43, No. 6 | July 24, 2008 Subscribe

Campaign spurs big drop in night drinking and driving

Combine stepped-up enforcement of laws on alcohol-impaired driving and the 21 minimum drinking age in a college town with a media blitz, and the payoff can be a big drop in nighttime drinking and driving among teens and young adults, an Institute study shows.

Lots of universities conduct alcohol-awareness programs to reduce on-campus drinking, but few target drinking and driving, and even fewer include tough enforcement like frequent sobriety checkpoints and checks of places that sell alcohol. Huntington, W.Va., home of Marshall University, was the focus of a 2007 campaign coordinated by the West Virginia Highway Safety Office to reduce alcohol-impaired driving and violations of the 21 minimum drinking-age law among students and other 16-24 year-olds in Cabell and Wayne counties.

During nighttime roadside surveys, Institute researchers collected breath samples to measure drivers' blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) before and during the program. The odds of a 16-20-year-old driver having a BAC greater than 0.05 percent (5 g alcohol/dL blood) were reduced 93 percent.

"Not only did we see reductions in drinking and driving among teenagers and young adults, we also found fewer drinking older drivers than we did in comparison surveys conducted before the campaign," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research and the study's lead author.

The percentage of drivers with BACs of 0.08 or more decreased from 1 percent in the fall of 2006 to 0.1 percent in fall 2007 for 16-20 year-olds, from 1.6 percent to 0.7 percent for 21-24 year-olds, and from 5.8 percent to 1.8 percent for drivers 25 and older. Monongalia County, home of West Virginia University in Morgantown, was a comparison community. The percentage of drinking drivers there either increased or showed smaller declines.

Percent reduction in odds of given BAC in program community, by age group


Drinking drivers 16-20 years old (Thursday - Saturday nights)

BAC greater than or equal to 0.02% BAC greater than or equal to 0.08%
Fall 2006 1.8% 1.0%
Fall 2007 0.7% 0.1%

Drinking drivers 21-24 years old (Thursday - Saturday nights)

BAC greater than or equal to 0.02% BAC greater than or equal to 0.08%
Fall 2006 5.5% 1.6%
Fall 2007 3.0% 0.7%

All states have zero tolerance laws prohibiting people younger than 21 from driving with any measurable alcohol in their blood. Young drivers are less likely to drive after drinking, but when they do they're much more at risk of a fatal crash than older drivers with the same BACs. In 2006, 27 percent of drivers 16-20 and half of drivers 21-24 killed in crashes had a 0.08 or higher BAC.

These statistics are why it's so important to deter young people from drinking and driving, McCartt says. In Huntington, students and nonstudents alike "got the message that chances were good they'd be caught if they violated zero tolerance laws."

Frequent sobriety checkpoints and DUI patrols were hard to miss. Police officers held 4 times as many low-manpower sobriety checkpoints — those involving just a few officers — and dedicated DUI patrols (60 versus 15) a month as they did before the program. McCartt notes that an earlier study of checkpoints in 2 West Virginia counties found weekly checkpoints associated with a 70 percent drop in the percentage of nighttime drinking drivers with BACs at or above 0.05 percent compared with 2 other counties with sporadic checkpoints (see Status Report special issue: alcohol-impaired driving, April 2, 2005).

"West Virginia has repeatedly demonstrated that frequent and well-publicized enforcement helps convince impaired people not to drive in the first place," McCartt says. Likewise, "police spot checks on businesses that sell alcohol make a real difference."

To enforce the minimum drinking-age law, officers made more than 3 times as many checks of alcohol outlets (24 versus 7) during the campaign. The proportion of police underage "agents" able to buy alcohol fell from 43 percent to 18 percent. Institute studies show underage youths often are able to buy alcohol (see "Young people still able to buy alcohol from outlets, bars," Jan. 11, 1997, and "Underage youths easily buy beer, and their traffic deaths go up," March 16, 1991).

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