How to Stop Teens From Drinking and Driving

Stripping drivers of their licenses if they use fake IDs works. Other measures fall short.

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Yanking teenagers' driver's licenses if they're caught using a fake ID to buy alcohol may be one of the most useful new tools in reducing the risk of drinking and driving, according to a study of state laws aimed at discouraging teenage drinking. But some of the more high-profile efforts, including penalties for adults who host underage parties and, for teens, graduated driver's licenses that prohibit night driving, didn't appear to do any good.

"Almost everyone knows that it's illegal to use a fake ID," says Jim Fell, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, Md., who conducted the study, published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention. Six states suspend licenses for using fake IDs, and those states saw the only significant reduction in drunk-driving fatalities among teenagers from 1998 to 2004, a drop of 7 percent, based on federal accident data.

Fell thinks that the tough fake ID laws work because teenagers are aware of the sanctions, unlike the penalties for many of the other laws. Still, he was surprised that 15 other widely used measures, including graduated driver's licenses, sanctions against adults who host parties for underage drinkers, and "zero tolerance" laws, which suspend driver's licenses for underage drinking, seemed to have no effect. He's hoping that's due to the limitations of his study, not the underlying data. "We're going to look at it harder."

Fell, a former board member for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is a big believer in the value of having 21 be the drinking age. Raising the drinking age to 21, as many states did in the mid-1980s, reduced drinking-related fatalities by 11 percent, he says. In this study, he looked at fatalities from 1982 to 1995 and accounted for other factors, including safer cars and roads. In that time, the overall death rate associated with drunk drivers under 21 declined 59 percent, while it dropped just 32 percent among drivers 21 and over.

Deaths caused by drunk driving plummeted after 1984, when states started raising their drinking ages to 21 in response to federal law and Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaigned to stigmatize drinking and driving. But the decline in drunk-driving fatalities for all ages stopped 10 years ago, and the number actually inched upward by a few hundred in 2005, to 13,582. That trend has led to the spate of new laws—and also to new questions on the merits of keeping 21 the legal age.

Since 2005, 13 states have considered lowering the legal drinking age to 18; some, like New Hampshire, would grant that right only to members of the military. John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College and founder of Choose Responsibility, argues that keeping the drinking age at 21, higher than in any other country, forces teenage drinking underground. "I think a law that has effectively eliminated drinking from public view and public places but has not very effectively reduced excessive and binge drinking in the long run is not going to save lives."