Research Watch: Drunk Drivers and Young Passengers

Diana Zuckerman
November 1, 2000

Alcohol and Motor Vehicle-Related Deaths of Children as Passengers, Pedestrians, and Bicyclists

Lewis Margolis, M.D., M.P.H., Robert Foss, Ph.D., William Tolbert, M.A.

Journal of the American Medical Association, May 3, 2000; Vol. 283:2245-2252.

Available free from Dr. Margolis, Dept of Maternal and Child Health, University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, or

Characteristics of Child Passenger Deaths and Injuries Involving Drinking Drivers

Kyran Quinlan, M.D., Robert Brewer, M.D., David Sleet, Ph.D., Ann Dellinger, Ph.D.

Journal of the American Medical Association, May 3, 2000; Vol. 283, pp. 2291-2292.

Available free from Dr. Quinlan at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC, 4770 Buford Hwy. N.E., MS K-63, Atlanta, GA 30341, or

Two new studies serve as important reminders to youth workers that one of the greatest threats to children is motor vehicle accidents involving alcohol.

The Margolis study is based on data from the national Fatality Analysis Reporting System from 1991-96. The researchers analyzed the more than 16,000 children younger than 16 who died as pedestrians, passengers, or cyclists involved in motor vehicle accidents.

Twenty percent (3,310) of the children's deaths were linked to drinking drivers. Eighty percent of the children who died were passengers; the others were pedestrians or bicyclists struck by drivers who had been drinking alcohol. In two-thirds of the crashes involving alcohol, the driver of the child's car had been drinking. Drivers under the legal age to purchase alcohol accounted for 30 percent of the passenger deaths. In other words, most children died as passengers driven by drinking drivers, many (but not most) of whom were too young to legally drink alcohol.

The researchers urged that "laws governing availability of alcohol to this age group should be more rigorously enforced" and that the taxes on alcoholic beverages should be increased to discourage teenagers from purchasing them.

In the study conducted by scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), data were analyzed from 1985-96 from the same database, and from 1988-96 from the General Estimates System on nonfatal injuries. This study provides more information about accidents involving drinking drivers.

The CDC scientists found that between 1985 and 1996, 5,555 children died in car accidents in which at least one driver had been drinking. Of these, 3,556 (64 percent) were passengers riding with a drinking driver. Relatively few of the drinking drivers had a previous license suspension (17 percent) or conviction for driving while intoxicated (8 percent). Most child deaths involved children who were not buckled in: Older children were less likely to be using seat belts, and children were increasingly unlikely to have used a car seat or child restraint as the blood alcohol concentration of the child's driver increased.

Between 1988 and 1996, 149,000 children sustained nonfatal injuries in automobile accidents involving drinking drivers. Of these, 58,000 (39 percent) were riding with a drinking driver when they were injured in the crash.

Dr. Quinlan and his colleagues recommend stricter laws and punishment for drunk driving, including license suspension, mandatory substance abuse assessment and treatment, and "zero tolerance for alcohol use by drivers younger than 21 years." They also call for counseling by healthcare providers on the dangers of drunk driving and "stricter enforcement of child safety seat laws."

The implications of both studies are clear for youth workers: More needs to be done to convince youth and adults not to drive after drinking, and to convince youths to not ride in a car if the driver has been drinking. Youth workers can help by teaching kids how to avoid such situations, such as helping them plan ahead for alternative forms of transportation from parties and other events when drinking is likely (Helping children avoid riding with a parent or guardian who has been drinking is admittedly a more difficult matter). Youth workers may also want to lend their support for policies aimed at decreasing underage drinking and driving under the influence.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Drunk Drivers and Young Passengers." Research Watch review of "Alcohol and Motor Vehicle-Related Deaths of Children as Passengers, Pedestrians, and Bicyclists" and "Characteristics of Child Passenger Deaths and Injuries Involving Drinking Drivers." Youth Today, November 2000, p. 56.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.