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Risky alcohol-related driving behavior increases at age 21

May 31, 2010 |  1:00 pm

Underage drinking is a widespread problem and includes risky behaviors like drinking and driving or being a passenger in a car with a driver who is impaired. But a study shows that college-age youths take even more alcohol-related driving risks than underage drinkers. The study found a sharp uptick when students turned 21 years old, the legal age for purchasing alcohol.

DrunkDriving Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health recruited 1,253 first-year college students to participate in a four-year study examining drinking behaviors. They found that, among 20-year-olds, 8% drove after drinking any alcohol, 20% drove while intoxicated and 43% rode with an intoxicated driver. At age 21, 63% drove after drinking any alcohol, 25% drove while intoxicated and 49% rode with an intoxicated driver.

Other studies have shown that freshmen in college tend to drink more than upper-classmen. However, risky driving behavior related to alcohol appears to increase with age among college students, perhaps due to reaching the legal drinking age or more access to cars. The study should be considered in the national debate about lowering the legal drinking age to 18, said the lead author of the study, Amelia M. Arria, director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

"Our findings call into question the assertions of some advocates who claim that lowering the drinking age to 18 would be a useful strategy for reducing harm associated with alcohol consumption," Arria said in a news release. "The present findings are consistent with numerous prior studies showing that increased availability of alcohol is associated with a greater level of problems, especially underage drinking-and-driving fatal crashes."

The study was published Monday in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

— Shari Roan

Photo: High school students portray the living dead during the 'Every 15 Minutes' program, a staged drunk-driving accident to help illustrate the dangers of drinking and driving, in Roswell, N.M. Credit: Mark Wilson / Roswell Daily Record.