By Steven Reinberg
WEDNESDAY, Feb. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Although men make up the vast majority of drunken drivers in the United States, more young women are driving drunk and getting into fatal car accidents than ever before, a new study reports.
Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), said that the finding "is not surprising" because social pressures on women have increased, and women are picking up some of the bad habits that men have.
"Young women in particular turn to drugs and alcohol to cope and to feel like a part of the crowd or lose their inhibitions," she said.
The study, based on data from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that "female drivers involved in fatal crashes actually increased over the years we studied -- 1995 to 2007," said Dr. Federico Vaca, a professor of emergency medicine at Yale University School of Medicine and the study's lead researcher.
The finding is published Feb. 18 in Injury Prevention.
Though young men are still the ones mostly involved in fatal crashes, the increase in accidents among young women is concerning, Vaca said. And he, too, thinks a social dynamic may be at play, with the increase in risky behavior reflecting a growing desire among young women to fit in.
In their research, Vaca's team used data on alcohol-related accidents in five age groups: 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds, 19- and 20-year-olds and 21- to 24-year-olds. They also looked at blood alcohol levels from 0.01 grams per deciliter (g/dl) to 0.15 g/dl, the level at which drivers have a 100-fold increase in the risk for an accident. The legal blood alcohol for driving in all U.S. states is 0.08 g/dl.
In the 12-year period examined by the researchers, 179,891 fatal car accidents were recorded among drivers 16 to 24 years old. Among young men, the accident rate dropped by 2.5 accidents per 100,000 people. The decline was mostly among those 16 to 20, and the rate remained the same for those 21 to 24.
Among young women, the rate fell by 0.8 accidents per 100,000 people for 16-year-olds and remained the same for 17- and 18-year-olds. But it increased 0.7 per 100,000 among 19-year-olds and 0.6 per 100,000 among 21- to 24-year-olds, Vaca's group found.
In addition, among those involved in fatal crashes, the proportion of young men (1.2 percent) who had a positive blood alcohol test was less than the proportion of women (3.1 percent), the researchers noted.
The greatest increase in fatal car accidents was among those with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 g/dl or more. Among women, this rose 2 percent, compared with 2.4 percent among men.
But the increase in the proportion of young people involved in fatal car crashes who had positive blood alcohol tests was greater among women than men, regardless of when the accident occurred.
Weekday alcohol-related accidents among women rose by 3.5 percent, and weekend accidents rose 2.2 percent, compared with a 1.5 percent increase weekdays and 0.4 percent on weekends among young men, the study found.
"The scary thing is that many women are driving drunk and they are killing or injuring families, including their own children," Dean-Mooney, of MADD, said.
Dr. Judy Schaechter, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that "there may be a loss of the notion of what it means to be feminine."
More women are drinking now, she said, and "we know that alcohol reduces inhibitions and increases risky behavior, whether that's driving aggressively, driving recklessly, not wearing your seat belt or having unsafe sex."
Schaechter said that she thinks messages about drunken driving need to be directed specifically toward young women. They should point out some of the potential consequences of drunken driving, such as jail time, disfigurement and other crippling injuries, which may resonate with women, she said.
But Dean-Mooney said that the public has become saturated with drinking-and-driving messages. The next step in controlling the problem, she said, is technology that prevents drunken drivers from starting their cars -- something she predicted would eventually be on every car.