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Traffic Tech #233: Age Of Drinking Onset And Involvement In Alcohol-Related Crashes And Other Unintentional Injuries

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Number 233                                                             September 2000

U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20590

AGE OF DRINKING ONSET AND INVOLVEMENT IN ALCOHOL-RELATED CRASHES AND OTHER UNINTENTIONAL INJURIES

A recent analysis of the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (NLAES) conducted for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that the age of drinking onset was strongly related to having experienced alcohol dependence during one's life.

Among both males and females, and people with and without a family history of alcoholism, those who began drinking regularly before age 14 were at least three times more likely than those who did not drink alcohol until they were over 21 to experience alcohol dependence.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) contracted with researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health to use data from the NLAES in two studies on drinking and driving.


Survey Design

The NLAES is a national probability survey covering many issues related to alcohol use. The 1992 survey which was used in these studies involved face-to-face interviews with nearly 43,000 respondents, age 18 and older. The overall response rate for participants was 90 percent.

The drinking and driving issue was explored by asking, In your entire life, did you ever drive a car, motorcycle, truck or boat, or other vehicle after having too much to drink? and Did that happen in the past 12 months?

Alcohol-related crash involvement was explored by asking, In your entire life, did you ever have a car, motorcycle, truck, boat, or other accident because of your drinking? and Did that happen the past 12 months? Note that these questions reflect a person's belief that alcohol played a role in the crash, and is not an objective measure of whether or not it did.

The age of drinking onset was ascertained by asking subjects how old they were when they first started drinking, not counting small tastes or sips of alcohol. This information was collected from respondents who were classified as current drinkers and former drinkers.


Onset of Drinking Age and Crash Risk

In the first study, the researchers examined whether the age of initial drinking was related to later crash experience.

For those participants who were either current or former drinkers, about one quarter (23 percent) reported ever having driven a vehicle after having too much to drink; 5 percent reported doing this in the last year. Four percent of the participants said they had been in a crash because of their drinking. The data indicated that the earlier the respondents began drinking, the greater the proportions who reported driving after drinking too much, and crash involvement because of drinking. Those who began drinking before age 14 were three times more likely than those who began drinking after age 21 to report ever driving after drinking too much (53 vs. 18 percent) and seven times more likely to report ever being in a crash because of their drinking (14 vs. 2 percent). The magnitude of difference tended to become smaller as the initial age drinking became closer to 21.

Several subgroups were significantly more likely to have begun drinking at younger ages: males, younger respondents, those with less than a high school education, those who had never married, those who currently or ever smoked or used illicit drugs, and those with a diagnosis of alcohol dependence.


Onset of Drinking Age and Unintentional Injury

In this study, the researchers examined whether people who start drinking at an early age are more likely to have experienced unintentional injuries under the influence of alcohol.

Survey participants (either current or past drinkers) were asked whether they had gotten into a situation while drinking, or after drinking, that increased their risk of injury. They were asked if they had ever accidentally injured themselves while under the influence of alcohol.

Early age of drinking onset was strongly related to both being in situations while or after drinking that increased a person's chances of being injured under the influence of alcohol. Compared to respondents who began drinking at age 21 or older, those who began drinking prior to age 14 were nearly seven times more likely to report having been in situations that increased their chance of injury (34 vs. 5 percent). These people were also 12 times more likely to have ever been accidentally injured under the influence of alcohol in their lives (24 vs. 2 percent).

Even after adjusting for personal history of alcohol dependence, heavy drinking frequency at the time they drank most, family history of alcoholism and other personal characteristics associated with early onset of drinking, persons who began drinking prior to age 14 were 3.0 times more likely ever and 2.0 times more likely in the past year to have been injured under the influence of alcohol.


Conclusions

These studies raise the likelihood that efforts to delay drinking onset are associated with reductions in traffic injuries and other unintentional injuries incurred under the influence of alcohol for those 21 and older.


HOW TO ORDER

For a copy of Age of Drinking Onset, Driving After Drinking, and Involvement in Alcohol-Related Motor Vehicle Crashes or Age of Drinking Onset and Unintentional Injury Involvement After Drinking, write to the Office of Research and Traffic Records, NHTSA, NTS-31, 400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20590, or send a fax to (202) 366-7096. Amy Berning was the contract manager for these studies.


U.S. Department
of Transportation
National Highway
Traffic Safety
Administration

400 Seventh Street, S.W. NTS-31
Washington, DC 20590

Traffic Tech is a publication to disseminate
information about traffic safety programs,
including evaluations, innovative programs,
and new publications. Feel free to copy it as you wish.
If you would like to receive a copy contact:
Linda Cosgrove, Ph.D., Editor, Evaluation Staff
Traffic Safety Programs
(202) 366-2759, fax (202) 366-7096
mailto:lcosgrove@nhtsa.dot.gov



 



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