Remarks of Mark V. Rosenker, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
For the “Support 21” Press Conference
October 9, 2007
Thank you, Chuck.
I want to welcome all of you to the National Transportation Safety Board’s Board Room. It is in this room that we fulfill our congressionally mandated mission to make safety recommendations that prevent crashes and save lives in all modes of transportation. Unfortunately, today’s event is to promote an issue that we thought we had already addressed a quarter century ago, the need for Age 21 drinking laws!
The Safety Board has long recognized the need for laws that prevent alcohol consumption by people under age 21, and we have not identified any new information that merits changing the Board’s position.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that since 1975, Age 21 laws have prevented almost 25,000 traffic deaths. Our society should not tolerate the repeal or weakening of laws that have been proven to save teenagers’ lives.
When the Board investigated this issue in the early 1980s, drivers under age 21 were disproportionately involved in alcohol-related crashes. An overwhelmingly high percentage of fatally injured teen drivers had alcohol in their system.
In 1982, more than 5,300 (or 20 percent) of alcohol-related fatalities involved a teen driver with a positive blood alcohol concentration (or BAC). Every day, an average of 14 people were killed in crashes involving a teen driver who had consumed some alcohol.
That year, the Safety Board recommended that States raise the minimum legal age for drinking or purchasing alcohol to 21-years-old. The Safety Board recognized that immaturity, inexperience, and alcohol combine to be a fatal mixture, especially when the young driver gets behind the wheel! We watched as more crashes occurred when the legal drinking age was lowered; we knew that raising the legal drinking age back to 21 would help reduce these tragedies.
The impact of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 achieved what we had hoped and expected it to achieve, a decrease in the percentage of fatally injured teen drivers legally impaired by alcohol. However, the percentage started to increase again in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Safety Board revisited the issue in 1993 and determined that a law prohibiting only the sale of alcohol to minors was not sufficient. The Board recommended ways in which States could close loopholes and strengthen enforcement of this life-saving legislation. And we pursued these recommendations with vigor, putting them on our list of Most Wanted safety improvements.
As I said, the research and current data do not justify changing the Board’s position. In fact, quite the opposite. Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for teenagers, and alcohol remains the leading drug of choice. Nearly one-third of teen traffic deaths are alcohol-related, and 74 percent of teen drivers killed in crashes after drinking and driving were unrestrained.
In 2005, teen drivers (age 15 through 20) made up slightly more than 6 percent of the driving population. But although this population is not allowed to drink, almost 11 percent of alcohol-related fatalities (1,800 people) still involved a teen driver with a positive BAC. Countless dead and injured people are the sad testament to underage drinking and driving!
Lowering the drinking age once again will not prevent these deaths and injuries; better education, consistent expectation of responsibility, and enforcement of the existing laws will.
The Safety Board remains committed to the campaign against underage drinking! I am pleased that the Safety Board is once again working with our distinguished highway safety partners at MADD, the American Medical Association, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Together, we will save lives and reduce injuries! We will ensure that more children reach their 21st birthday. They are the future; we cannot allow the future to be wasted.
Thank you to all of our partners here today. And thank you to all those who work tirelessly to make our roads safer!