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One of the most dangerous acts a teenager can commit is getting behind the wheel after drinking. Young drivers are already higher-risk than other age groups due to their inexperience, their likelihood of being distracted while driving, and the higher prevalence of dangerous behaviors like speeding or not wearing a seatbelt. When alcohol is added to the mix, many of these issues only become more common and more likely to result in crashes and fatalities.
Fortunately, the prevalence of teens driving drunk—along with teen traffic fatalities in general—have been trending downward for years, making the roads safer for teens and other motorists. Led by efforts from organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), many states have adopted laws over the past few decades to cut down on teen drinking and driving, along with other dangerous driving behaviors. These reforms include zero-tolerance laws for drinking drivers under the age of 21, liability for those who serve alcohol to the underaged, graduated license programs that scale up new drivers’ rights and responsibilities as they get more driving experience, and limits on the number of passengers who can be in the vehicle with a teen driver.
These reforms have been remarkably effective: teen-related traffic fatalities are down nearly 75% from their peaks in the late 1970s. As it relates to drinking and driving specifically, the percentage of students who report that they have ridden with a drinking driver was more than cut in half from 39.9% in 1991 to 16.7% in 2019, according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). The data for students who report drinking and driving themselves does not go back as far but also shows positive signs, dropping from 10% in 2013 to 5.4% in 2019.