Study Finds More Than Half of Teen, Young Adult Crashes Involve Drugs, Alcohol

A study published earlier this year suggests that teens are not getting the message when it comes to the dangers of drunk driving and drugged driving.

In fact, out of the fatal crashes examined in the study, more than half of the teens and young drivers who died tested positive for alcohol, marijuana or both.

Additionally, the researchers found that reaching the legal drinking age of 21 had little impact on young drivers’ use of marijuana while driving – a finding which undermines the argument that lowering the legal drinking age to 18 may somehow deter young people from using other drugs and driving.

Many Young Drivers Found to Have Used Both Alcohol and Marijuana

Car accidents are the leading cause of death among teens and young adults in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 2013, 56 percent of those between ages 15 and 24 who died from unintentional injury were the victims of motor vehicle crashes (6,510), the CDC shows. In the South region, motor vehicle accidents accounted for 3,003 deaths, or 63.1 percent of unintentional injury deaths, among people in that age group.

The study, published in January in the online journal, Injury Epidemiology, analyzed the role that use of alcohol and marijuana may play in those crashes.

Researchers from the University of Columbia examined data on 7,000 fatal car accidents involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 25 between 1999 and 2011.  They focused on the statistics from nine states where blood or urine tests are routinely performed on those who die in crashes. (Virginia was not included).

The study found:

  • 3 percent of the drivers tested positive for alcohol, marijuana or both
  • 8 percent tested positive for alcohol only
  • 9 percent tested positive for marijuana only
  • 6 percent tested positive for both alcohol and marijuana.

The researchers also looked at whether there may be a relationship between use of marijuana and reaching the legal drinking age of 21. In other words, once a driver reaches age 21, is he or she less likely to use marijuana?

This research was done in response to a call by college presidents in 2008 to consider lowering the legal drinking age to 18. (See this USA Today article.) The idea being that a change in the law may discourage young people from binge drinking or from being tempted to try other drugs such as marijuana.

However, the study found, among drivers age 21 or older who were killed in crashes, the likelihood of finding both alcohol and marijuana in their system was actually 22 percent higher than in drivers under age 21.

“Taken together, we found no significant substitution effect between alcohol and marijuana,” one of the researchers said in a statement, according to “Rather, increased availability seems to increase the prevalence of concurrent use of alcohol and marijuana.”

Multi-Pronged Approach Needed to Tackle Teen Impaired Driving

This study underscores the need to engage in a multi-faceted approach to preventing drunk driving and drugged driving accidents among teens. It involves education, legislation (such as zero-tolerance laws) and targeted law enforcement campaigns.

In particular, messages should be aimed at raising awareness among teens and young adults about the dangers of not only drinking and driving but using drugs of any kind – illegal or prescription – and getting behind the wheel of a car.

At Geoff McDonald & Associates, our personal injury lawyers and support staff will continue to support all efforts to learn more about dangerous driving behaviors and to prevent auto accidents.

If you have been harmed in a car accident that was caused by another person, contact us to learn about your legal rights and the steps we can take to help in your recovery.