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Blood Alcohol Concentrations among Young Drivers -- United States, 1982

Data from the Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS)* for 1982 show that U.S. youth continue to be involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents (MVA), both as passengers and pedestrians, as well as drivers. The data also show that the blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) of young drivers who have been drinking and become involved in fatal MVA are lower than those of older drivers who have been drinking.

Of the 101,703 drivers, passengers, and pedestrians involved in 1982 fatal MVA on public roads, 43,721 (43%) died. A total of 17,832 (41%) of the victims were under 24 years of age; 6,687 (15%) were 15-19 years of age. According to police reports, 36% of the deaths occurred from MVA in which at least one driver had been drinking alcoholic beverages.

Young drivers comprised one-third of the 56,910 drivers involved in fatal crashes during 1982: 19,199 (34%) were under 24 years of age; 7,652 (13%) were 15-19 years of age. A total of 15,946 (36%) of all motor vehicle fatalities resulted from accidents in which at least one driver was under 24 years of age; 6,545 (15%) from accidents in which at least one driver was 15-19 years of age.

BAC tests are the only objective measure of alcohol use contained in the FARS data system. However, relatively few drivers are actually tested, and from those who are, not all results are reported. Although BAC testing and reporting have steadily increased in recent years (1), BAC data in 1982 were available for only 33% of all drivers in fatal MVA. Because of the incompleteness of BAC testing and reporting, large year-to-year variations in epidemiologic patterns could occur (2). However, the data on variations in BAC levels, when distributed by age, consistently reveal the same patterns year after year. This suggests the BAC data may reflect an underlying epidemiologic pattern.

Younger drivers who had been drinking (BAC greater than or equal to .01) and who were involved in fatal MVAs had lower BAC levels than older drivers who had been drinking (Figure 1). Among 16- to 19-year-olds, BAC levels of .10-.14 occurred most frequently. BAC of this level constituted 27% of the 1,687 drivers in this age group with reported positive BAC ( greater than or equal to .01). For 20- to 24-year-olds with positive BAC, the most frequent BAC level, .15-.19, was found in 26% of the 3,143 drivers in this category. Drivers 25-34 years of age are similar to those 20-24 years of age with respect to the most frequent BAC level, but the distribution as a whole is shifted to higher BAC levels. The most frequent BAC level is .20-.24 for drivers 35-44 years of age and for drivers 45 years of age and older. The overall distributions for these two older age groups are comparable.

Although inclusion of data for drivers with BAC of zero decreases the percentages in each positive BAC category, the overall relationship of BAC level to age remains the same (Table 4).

Among those for whom BAC test results were reported, more 20- to 34-year-old drivers involved in fatal MVA had been drinking (BAC greater than or equal to .01) than drivers of other ages (Table 4). Sixty-two percent of tested drivers 16-19 years old and 71% of drivers 20-34 years old had positive BAC, compared with 49% of tested drivers 35 years of age or over.

The age-specific patterns of BAC distributions have remained consistent over the years, despite changes in reporting practices. The distribution of 16- to 19-year-olds with reported positive BAC by BAC levels is similar for each of 6 years in a series of curves representing FARS BAC data collected between 1977 and 1982. The same congruence over time exists for age-specific BAC patterns in each of the other age groups. Reported by N Verdugo, MA, H Malin, MA, C Lowman, PhD, Alcohol Epidemiology Data System, Div of Biometry and Epidemiology, National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; Div of Surveillance and Epidemiolgoic Studies, Epidemiology Program Offfice, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: There are several possible interpretations of the age-specific BAC distributions. Survey data from self-reporting of alcohol use suggest these data may reflect alcohol-use patterns in the general population. Teenagers, for example, report lower levels of alcohol use (3) than older persons (4). Another interpretation is that younger drinkers may have a lower tolerance for alcohol than older, more experienced drinkers. Lower alcohol tolerance, combined with inexperience in driving, may increase the risk of teenage involvement in fatal MVA. Whatever the final explanation, it is apparent that many young lives are lost in alcohol-related accidents. The need is clear for education and action, particularly directed toward young persons, to prevent future alcohol use among drivers.


  1. CDC. Patterns of alcohol use among teenage drivers in fatal motor vehicle accidents. MMWR 1983;32:344-7.

  2. Cerrelli EC. The 1982 traffic fatalities: early assessment. Washington, D.C.: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Research and Development, 1983.

  3. Rachal JV, Guess LL, Hubbard RL, et al. The extent and nature of adolescent alcohol and drug use: the 1974 and 1978 national sample studies. Adolescent drinking behavior, Vol. 1. Rockville, Md.: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1980. NTIS No. PB81199267.

  4. Clark W, Midanik L. Alcohol use and alcohol problems among U.S. adults: results of the 1979 national survey. In: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol consumption and related problems. Alcohol and Health Monograph No. 1. DHHS Pub. No. (ADM) 82-1190. Washington, D.C.: Supt. of Docs., U.S. Government Printing Office 1982:3-52.

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