Laws aimed at preventing consumption of alcohol by those under 21 have been found to cut drinking-related fatal car crashes dramatically in a study on the minimum drinking age.
Reported in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, the study revealed that laws making it illegal to possess or purchase alcohol by anyone under the age of 21 had led to an 11 per cent reduction in alcohol-related traffic deaths among youth.
Lead researcher James C. Fell, an expert associated with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), said that the study also revealed that states with strong laws against fake IDs reported seven per cent fewer alcohol-related fatalities among drivers under the age of 21.
Funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program (SAPRP) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the study accounted for factors like improved safety features in cars, better roadways, and tougher adult drunk driving laws.
The researchers say that such factors are supposed to have contributed to a reduction in fatalities involving underage drivers who have consumed alcohol.
Fell says that the eleven percent drop in youth fatalities is a "conservative" figure.
He insists that his study is more sophisticated and comprehensive than previous studies that have looked at the drinking age.
"There has been evidence since the 1980s that an increase in the drinking age to 21 was having an impact on traffic deaths. But this is the first time we've been able to tease out the real effect, free of the variables that had been used to question the validity of the evidence," Fell said.
Based on the study's results, he has come to the conclusion that tougher sanctions against fake identification cards may represent the second-best legislative tool that states have in combating drunk driving deaths among young people.
"States that merely confiscate a fake ID, or just give a slap on the wrist to the user, are passing up a significant opportunity to save lives. We found a seven percent drop in youth alcohol-related fatalities in states that are willing to take strong actions, such as automatically suspending the driver's license of a young person caught with a fake ID," said Fell.
For their study, the researchers looked at data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting system (FARS)-a database of all police- reported motor vehicle crashes resulting in at least one fatality-between 1982 and 1990 to assess the strength of each state's legislation aimed at preventing underage drinking.
Based on the FARS data for each state, they were able to determine the impact of the state's individual laws on underage drinking and driving fatalities.
Fell says that though considerable evidence exists that such laws can influence underage alcohol related traffic fatalities, it had been difficult for researchers to date to pinpoint the precise effect of the change in the drinking age because of other confounding factors.
"Some have argued that the declining numbers are due to a general decrease in drunk driving, or because of the lowering of the BAC limit, or better cars and better roads. But we controlled for all of these to the extent possible in this study," he said.