Teenage drivers in the United States are over-represented in motor-vehicle-related accidents and fatalities. While teenage drivers comprise less than five percent of licensed drivers, they account for roughly 20 percent of all motor vehicle crashes. A study of associations between alcohol/traffic risk behaviors among high-school youth and two laws – Graduated Driving Licensing (GDL) laws that help novice drivers gain experience in less risky driving situations while advancing toward full licensure, and use-and-lose laws – has found that both laws reduce hazardous drinking and driving behaviors among teens.
Results will be published in the September 2012 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.
"The problem of motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) and fatalities among young drivers cannot be overstated," said Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg, a research assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine. "MVAs are the leading cause of death for youth aged 16 to 20 years and currently account for more than one in three deaths in this age group. The only other age group with higher crash rates is drivers who are aged 80 or older." Cavazos-Rehg is also the corresponding author for the study.
"While we knew that GDLs reduce non-fatal and fatal motor vehicle accidents among teens," said Cavazos-Rehg, "prior to our study it was unknown if GDLs are associated with reduced teen drinking and driving behaviors. We further hypothesized that use-and-lose laws also had the potential to reduce drinking and driving behaviors of youth. This is because use-and-lose laws permit the suspension of drivers' licenses when youth are caught using alcohol."
James C. Fell, a senior research scientist with the Impaired Driving Center at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, Maryland agreed. "Specific state laws and policies have been shown to have an effect on drinking and driving, especially with teens, and are an important component in our arsenal to prevent such behavior."
Cavazos-Rehg and her colleagues obtained drinking and driving behaviors for 221,362 youth (111,345 males, 110,017 females), aged 16 - 17 years old, from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System for the years 1999 - 2009. The reported behaviors were coded as 0 or 1+ times, and then examined for linkages with the strength of the two selected state-level laws.
"The key finding of our study was that states with restrictive GDL laws and use-and-lose laws had less youth who reported driving after drinking any alcohol, and riding in a car with a driver who had been drinking alcohol," said Cavazos-Rehg. "In other words, a student in a state with the strongest GDL and use-and-lose laws would be approximately half as likely as a student in a state with the weakest GDL and use-and-lose laws to drive after drinking."
"This is a crucial link to other research showing reductions in fatal crashes associated with these two laws," added Fell. "This research has now linked crash reductions to specific behavior changes."
"We were surprised by the strength of the association we found between the state policies we examined and the reduction in hazardous drinking and driving behaviors among teens," said Cavazos-Rehg. "Given that many states have already adopted restrictive GDL and use-and-lose policies over the past decade … we were pleased that our findings support the strengthening of GDL and use-lose-laws that is already occurring and hope that our findings provide evidence for adopting and/or strengthening GDL and use-and-lose laws to those states not already involved in these efforts."
Fell said that these findings add depth to his own research. "In recent research that I was involved in here at PIRE, we were able to show a five percent reduction in young drinking driver fatal crashes associated with any use and lose law," he said. "This new research shows a significant change in behavior based upon the strength of use and lose laws. This is an important finding."
Both Cavazos-Rehg and Fell noted that the very perception of tougher state laws can change societal expectations.
"Both GDLs and use-and-lose laws carry the penalty of licensure suspension when either law is broken," said Cavazos-Rehg. "This consequence may be perceived as harsh for many youth. Therefore, both laws are potentially effective at instilling safe driving behaviors because of the 'stiff' penalties that follow if and when either of these laws is violated. GDLs have the added component of teaching youth driving knowledge, skill and experience via supervised driving, driver education, restrictions on the number of passengers, restrictions on nighttime driving, and stipulations on the duration of restrictions."
"These findings mean that these two laws, if they are strong, can have a significant effect on teen behavior and can save lives," said Fell. "Parents and clinicians should reinforce the awareness of teens to these laws and work to get weak laws strengthened."
Cavazos-Rehg agreed. "Obtaining a driver's license is a milestone for many youth," she said. "Clinicians and/or parents of teen drivers should recognize this event as a teachable moment for youth. In doing so, they can capitalize on the opportunity to underscore that safe driving behaviors reflect broader societal and legal expectations as well as those expectations that exist within one's family."