NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The number of U.S. teenagers involved in fatal drunk-driving accidents has declined because of laws that raised the legal drinking age to 21, according to a new study.
Researchers found that two "core" drinking-age laws passed in all U.S. states in the 1980s were responsible for an 11 percent decrease in the number of drunk teenage drivers involved in fatal crashes. The two laws made it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to buy or possess alcohol.
The findings, the researchers say, suggest that calls for once again lowering the minimum drinking age in some states could end up reversing those gains.
In 1984, the U.S. passed a federal law that spurred drink driving laws all states to raise their minimum drinking age to 21.
Studies since then have suggested that the move was having an effect on traffic deaths, but it was hard to disentangle the dui first offense impact of the law from other factors -- like safer cars and tougher laws against drunk driving in general.
For the new study, researchers at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, Maryland, used federal data on state drinking laws, as well as information from a national surveillance system of fatal traffic accidents to help account for these other factors.
This is the first time that a study has been able to tease out the effects of drinking-age laws from those of other important variables, according to study leader James C. Fell.
"We believe that we dui consequences controlled for just about everything you can control for that there was data on," Fell told Reuters Health.
He noted that there is a movement in some states to lower the minimum drinking age. According to the anti-drunk-driving organization MADD, eight states have introduced legislation on the matter this year.
"Based not only on this research, but on past research as well ... I don't think that's a good idea," Fell said. He and his colleagues report their research in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.
Along with drinking-age laws, Fell's team found, state laws that leveled tougher punishment on teenagers with fake IDs also had an impact on teen drunk-driving deaths.
Compared with states with the weakest fake-ID laws, those with the toughest -- an immediate suspension of a teenager's driving license -- had a 14 percent lower rate of fatal accidents involving drunk underage drivers.
Such sanctions "send a message" to teenage drivers, Fell said. "Kids do not want to lose their license."
According to Fell, states that simply confiscate fake IDs may be "passing up a significant opportunity to save lives."
SOURCE: Accident Analysis and Prevention, July 2008.