Effects Of The Drinking Age On Car Crashes

Seventeen studies of the effects of lowering the legal age for drinking on traffic crashes appeared between 1974 and 1982 (Wagenaar, 1983). Although results varied across studies and across states, most studies found significant increases in traffic crashes among youth after the drinking age had been lowered (usually from 21 to 18). Typically, lowering the drinking age resulted in 5 percent to 20 percent increases in fatal and injury-producing crashes likely to involve alcohol, such as single-vehicle crashes occurring at night.

Thirty-nine studies of the effects on traffic crashes of raising the legal age for drinking have appeared between 1979 and 1992 (Wagenaar, 1993). Twenty-eight of these studies found significant reductions in the involvement of youth in traffic crashes following increases in the legal drinking age. Typically, raising the drinking age resulted in 5 percent to 20 percent declines in fatal and injury-producing crashes likely to involve alcohol. With the aid of the better-designed studies with longer follow-up periods, it could be estimated that the long-term effects of raising the drinking age to 21 would be a 13 percent decline in single-vehicle nighttime crashes among those whose legal access to alcohol was removed (i.e., 18 to 20-year-olds).

The legal drinking age is probably the most extensively researched policy that is designed to reduce traffic crashes and other alcohol problems. Scientists and professionals in the field agree that lowering the legal age for drinking increased car crashes among youth, and that, subsequently, raising the legal age reversed the effect: It lowered car crashes among youth (United States General Accounting Office, 1987). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that, even when counting only those states that raised the legal age after 1982, the U.S. age-21 policy now saves over one thousand lives per year in reduced car crashes alone (Arnold, 1985).

Figure 1

Alcohol Use, U.S. High School Seniors

Figure 1

Alcohol Use, U.S. High School Seniors

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