Underage drinking and driving remains a deadly combo

While distraction and inexperience are frequently implicated in teen crashes, alcohol is another common and compounding factor. 

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States, and alcohol is a major contributor — 1 in 6 teenagers involved in a fatal crash in 2016 had been drinking. During this year's National Teen Driver Safety Week, AAA is highlighting newly released data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that show driving drunk is a serious problem among teen drivers.

 

Teen crashes by the numbers

Drivers between the ages of 15 and 19 have the highest rate of crashes, both per licensed driver and per mile, of any age group. In 2015, more than 900,000 teen drivers were involved in police-reported crashes, resulting in about 359,000 injuries and 3,516 deaths. In 2016, the number of fatalities rose to 3,599, led by Texas (339 fatalities), California (319), and Florida (288). Of those killed in teen-driver related crashes in 2016, 39 percent were teen drivers, 22 percent were the passengers of teen drivers, 28 percent were occupants of another vehicle, and 11 percent were bystanders. More than a third of the deaths (36 percent) occurred between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., the most dangerous time for teen driving.

 

The impact of underage drinking

On average, most American teenagers first consume alcohol at 14, which is shortly before the earliest age that most states will grant young drivers a learner's permit. This is reflected in the rates at which alcohol is involved in fatal teen crashes: While teens 18 to 19 had the highest rates of alcohol-related crashes, 15-year-olds came in with the third-highest rate. 

Number and percent of drivers in fatal crashes with alcohol in blood (BAC ≥ 0.01) by age, 2016

Driver's age

Total drivers involved in fatal crashes

Number with alcohol in blood

Percent with alcohol in blood

15

102

17

16.5%

16

415

41

9.9%

17

693

93

13.4%

18

1,015

192

18.9%

19

1,098

222

20.2%

Despite the prevalence of underage drinking, teens don't have a markedly different attitude toward drunken driving than adults: According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety's 2016 Traffic Safety Culture Index study, about 67 percent of teens age 16-19 agree that drunk driving is "a very serious threat," as compared with 69 percent of adults age 35-55. But while 86 percent of teens also say driving after having too much to drink is "completely unacceptable," 7 percent admit to having done so anyway in the previous year, and 4 percent admit to doing it regularly.

 

What parents can do

  • Provide a framework for your teen that guides their decision-making and behaviors, even when you're not around: More than 80 percent of teens say their parents are the leading influence in their decision about underage drinking. 
  • Don't assume it's too early to discuss drinking and driving; remember that the average teen has consumed alcohol by 14.
  • Commit to teaching by example, making good driving decisions and avoid high-risk situations.
  • Enforce your state's Graduated Driver Licensing rules at home. These often prohibit young drivers from driving late at night or with other underage passengers. Learn about GDL laws.