Less drink, safer roads

Cultural changes in patterns of consumption of alcohol, combined with strict laws, lead to drop in traffic fatalities

December 25, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- When handcarts of holiday booze roll out of Ace Beverage, a major capital party supplier, the typical load is far different than a generation ago.

There's no Scotch "unless it's for an older group," said owner Steve Siegel, and no bourbon "unless they're Southerners."

Vodka aside, there's little hard liquor nowadays, but lots of bottled water. The shifts all reflect what Siegel, 56, said is a huge social change: "Nobody thinks it's cool any longer to go to an office party and get drunk."

And as Ace's clients go, so goes the nation. Government figures show alcohol consumption is down about 20 percent nationwide since the early 1980s, reflecting both tougher laws and tamer tastes. The decline also reflects an aging population that drinks less.

The clearest dividend is a 36 percent drop in traffic fatalities involving alcohol since 1982. For Americans under 30, the declines are even greater. The drops add up to more than 312,000 U.S. lives saved since 1982, according to an analysis that will appear in the Journal of Safety Research next month.

"It's a tremendous reduction, on a par with the effect of seatbelts," said James Fell, the author of the study, who recently retired from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He's now with the Maryland branch of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a consulting firm that researches driver behavior.

Abuse researchers caution, however, that once-steep declines in U.S. drinking have flattened in the past five years. And binge drinking is up among high school and college-age students as well as adults in their 20s.

Nonetheless, the reported drop in alcohol-related traffic fatalities has been greatest since 1982 for this same age group: the 16-to-29-year-olds that parents worry the most about.

"Their alcohol consumption levels haven't dropped much, but their drunk driving has," said James Lange, a psychologist at San Diego State University who specializes in young driver behavior. Whether by designating drivers or staying out of cars, "they separate consumption from driving a lot more than teens and young adults used to," Lange said.

Abstinence from alcohol is growing, too, among younger Americans, according to the latest annual national study of high school teens released Dec. 19. Asked whether they had consumed alcohol in the previous year, 68.6 percent of high school seniors said yes. That compares to 70.6 percent in 2004 and 84.8 percent in 1975.

The bottom line is that alcohol-related traffic fatalities since 1982 are down 56 percent among 16-to-20-year-olds, according to NHTSA figures. Among those ages 21 to 29, they're down 47 percent. Other age groups show smaller declines in the alcohol-related traffic death toll, which dropped from 26,172 in 1982 to 16,684 in 2004. U.S. traffic deaths unrelated to drinking rose about 30 percent in the same period.

Among the most effective measures were:

Higher alcohol taxes, especially on beer, the beverage of choice for binge drinkers, male binge drinkers, and male binge drinkers who drink and drive. Beer accounts for 68 percent of binge drinks, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey reported Dec. 13 at the American Public Health Association's convention in Philadelphia.

Raising the minimum legal drinking age to 21. It has cut accidents among drivers ages 18 to 20 by about 16 percent, according to a CDC review of research on how well preventive measures work.

Stricter limits on alcohol tolerance for inexperienced drivers. Such laws limit blood alcohol content for drivers under age 21 to 0.00, or, in some states, 0.02. The figure measures the percentage of ethanol in the bloodstream. Zero-tolerance laws cut fatal crashes involving alcohol by between 10 to 20 percent, the CDC estimates.

Sobriety checkpoints. They cut fatal crashes by 22 percent with random breath tests; 23 percent when police select the drivers tested, according to the CDC.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a government agency, tracks U.S. drinking in terms of pure ethanol to neutralize differences in alcohol content among beer, wine and distilled spirits. Between 1982 and 2003, according to the institute, overall consumption fell from 2.72 gallons of ethanol per person annually to 2.22 gallons. That represented declines for beer of 12 percent, wine of 1 percent and distilled spirits of 34 percent.

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