Nearly 1,700 young drivers aged 15 to 20 years old died in 2013. Although this is a 10 percent decrease from the previous year, motor vehicle injuries are still a leading cause of death among youth in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. What’s more, nearly one in three of those crashes were alcohol-related. These statistics demonstrate that impaired driving among teens continues to be a serious traffic safety and public health issue. Now, new research presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting suggests this public health issue should be approached broadly, with state policies that address underage drinking as well as the drinking habits of those old enough to legally drink alcohol.

"Our study was unique because it looked at the overall collection of alcohol policies in a state — the alcohol policy environment — to see how multiple policies acting at once may protect youth," lead author Dr. Scott Hadland said in a statement. Earlier studies done on this topic had focused only on the effectiveness of a single policy, such as implementation of a new alcohol tax or establishing graduated driver's licensing laws.

Researchers affiliated with Harvard Medical School recruited a team of policy experts from a range of disciplines, including law, sociology, economics, epidemiology, and psychology to examine the effectiveness of collective alcohol policies in each U.S. state at reducing alcohol consumption and impaired driving, especially among underage drinkers. They found that states with stronger alcohol policies had fewer alcohol-related motor vehicle deaths, suggesting stiffer policies that not only target youth but adults as well, may protect teens from accidents.

"In fact, policies targeting the overall population of adults and youth — policies like taxes, limits on hours and locations of sales, and strict rules on drinking and driving for everyone, not just youth — appeared to be the most protective,” Hadland said.

This isn’t the first study to suggest reduced drunk driving rates are associated with broader, and more strict, alcohol policies. A 2015 study found that in states where laws are stricter, people are less likely to admit having driven drunk when asked. Even laws intended on reducing binge drinking, such as high alcohol taxes, safe serving laws, and retail sales restrictions, also reduced the likelihood of impaired driving. Another study found that tougher alcohol policies, even if they don’t target teens directly, can cause underage drinking to plummet. In fact, researchers found that stricter alcohol-related legislation that targets adults reduced the odds of teen drinking by 6 percent and the odds of teen binge drinking by 4 percent.

"Taking into consideration the power of adult influence upon youth behaviors, it is not surprising that the findings show policies that target adults have an impact on teen behaviors," Mayra Mendez, program coordinator for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and Mental Health Services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in California, told HealthDay. "There is a relationship between youth drinking patterns and adult drinking patterns, both for positive and negative behaviors."

The statistics regarding the prevalence of deaths due to alcohol-related crashes are frightening. Every day, 28 people in the U.S. die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. This amounts to one death every 53 minutes. In 2010, the annual cost of these crashes totaled more than $44 billion.

Source: Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting. 2016.