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Opening remarks before the Mothers Against Drunk Driving, National Symposium On Underage Drinking, Washington, DC
Mark V. Rosenker
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, National Symposium On Underage Drinking, Washington, DC

Thank you, Chuck.  Good morning!  I want to thank MADD and Nationwide Insurance for the privilege of addressing this important symposium. And welcome you to L’Enfant Plaza - the headquarters of the National Transportation Safety Board. 

It was almost 13 months ago to the day when Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the American Medical Association, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and the Safety Board jointly held a press conference announcing the formation of the Support 21 Coalition.  The press conference was held in the NTSB’s Board Room and Conference Center just a short distance from here.

Our participation in that press conference underscores the Safety Board’s and my personal concern for the safety of our young people. 

Each year, there are over 40,000 highway fatalities, more than any other mode of transportation.  Of that number, more than 40% of highway fatalities involve alcohol.  For that reason, the Safety Board has had a long history of recommending action to reduce alcohol-related fatalities, injuries, and crashes.

We have made a lot of progress at the Federal, State, and local level.  In 1982, based on data from NHTSA, there were 26,173 alcohol-related fatalities, almost 60 percent of all highway fatalities and the numbers were projected to increase.  In 2007, the number of alcohol-related fatalities had dropped to 17,036, but still 41 percent of all highway fatalities. 

Most of that progress was achieved in the 1980s and early 1990s, likely attributable to implementation of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act and State passage of Age 21 laws, administrative license revocation, sobriety checkpoints, mandatory seat belt use laws, and public education campaigns on the dangers of impaired driving. 

We have been stuck, however, in a decade-long plateau where the number and percent of alcohol-related fatalities has not declined further until 2007 when we saw a 4 percent decline.  NHTSA believes that its emphasis campaigns have had an effect as have economic issues.  We hope the reductions will continue. 

To understand where our commitment comes from, permit me to give you a little history of the Safety Board’s efforts to reduce drinking and driving. 

When one of my predecessors, Jim Burnett, came to Washington as the Chairman in 1982, his top priority was to address alcohol-involved crashes, both in highway and in other modes of transportation. His first priority was to increase the minimum drinking age to 21, because he believed it was the single most effective measure that could be taken to cut the death toll among the young. 

In 1982, the Board adopted a recommendation to the States to increase the minimum legal age for drinking or purchasing all alcoholic beverages to 21 years.  That recommendation was based on several studies and investigations of 4 accidents in the previous 3 years involving drivers in the 18-20 age range in which there were 30 fatalities and 15 injuries. 

This recommendation quickly became the focus of the Board's first steps into state advocacy.  Chairman Burnett testified twice in 1982 on our recommendation before the New Jersey legislature and in early 1983, the Board sent a letter to the States that received the recommendation asking what actions they had taken to implement the recommendation.  The Board had never done this before.  And what transpired thereafter is, as we say, history.

The Safety Board subsequently issued additional recommendations to prevent alcohol impaired driving in 1982, 1983, 1984, and again in 1989.  The 1989 recommendations came as a result of our investigation of the Carrollton, Kentucky bus crash, still known today as the worst drunk driving crash in the nation’s history.  We also issued youth alcohol-related recommendations in 1993 and a recommendation aimed at hard core drinking drivers in 2000. 

The issue of the minimum drinking age, which we first addressed in 1982, has been in the news in the last 18 months because of a misguided effort to lower the minimum drinking age.  This is an issue we thought was solved a quarter century ago through extensive congressional, Federal, and State action.

The change in the legal minimum drinking age has been one of the most extensively studied policy changes in our transportation history.  All of the rigorously drawn and peer-reviewed studies have essentially come to the same conclusion; lowering the legal drinking age increases both alcohol consumption and alcohol-related fatalities among young drivers; and raising the drinking age reduces consumption and fatalities.

By lowering the drinking age in the States, we have saved lives, but we haven’t solved the underage drinking problem.  Binge drinking is a serious problem among young people, especially on college campuses.  I am glad to see the academic community express their concern and recognize the need to curtail binge drinking, but I am distressed that some in that community see the solution as making alcohol more accessible. 

No one should be fooled by specious arguments like “18-year-olds can vote so why should laws prohibit them from drinking?”  Alcohol-related crashes can kill someone.  Voting is not harmful. Alcohol-related crashes exact an incredible psychological toll and cost society billions of dollars in economic losses.  Voting at age 18 does neither.

We, at the Safety Board, are experts in transportation safety; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association are experts in medicine and public health.  We all agree that minimum drinking age laws work to reduce teen alcohol-related fatalities.  Instead of repealing or weakening these laws, we need to establish additional safeguards. 

We recognize that the laws, their associated sanctions, and enforcement of the laws are imperfect.  There are loopholes in minimum drinking age laws that need to be corrected.

The Safety Board identified the loopholes fifteen years ago when we looked at the process by which young people obtain alcohol.  We asked the States to eliminate the legislative loopholes related to -  the sale, attempt to purchase, purchase, possession, consumption, use of false identification, and age misrepresentation by young persons to purchase alcohol.  A lot of progress has been made, but some loopholes remain today. 

  • 7 States still do not prohibit the attempt to purchase alcohol by minors
  • 4 States still do not prohibit them from the actual purchase.
  • 11 States still do not prohibit consumption, and
  • 11 States still do not prohibit age misrepresentation.

Maryland and Wyoming are the worst offenders.  They each have three of the 4 loopholes in their laws.   

It is critically important that police and alcohol beverage control commission agents aggressively enforce both age 21 and zero alcohol tolerance laws.  If these laws are deficient, they need to be fixed.  We know from experience that strong laws, fairly and equitably enforced, will make the public information, community education, prevention, and treatment programs work better. 

It is clear what the problem is.

  • Alcohol remains the drug of choice among America’s adolescents, used more than tobacco or illicit drugs. 
  • Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for teens
  • About one-quarter of all teen drivers killed in traffic crashes had an illegal BAC  of 0.08 or higher in 2006,
  • Teen drivers (age 15 through 20) are overrepresented in alcohol related crashes.  But although this population is not allowed to drink, almost 11 percent of alcohol-related fatalities still involved a teen driver with a positive BAC. 

Countless dead and injured people are the sad testament to underage drinking and driving!  We know that Age 21 laws save lives.  They have prevented over 25,000 traffic deaths.

So today I challenge you to close the remaining loopholes in the state laws, increase enforcement, and establish programs so that our teenagers cannot continue to obtain alcohol and thus drink and drive. 

The National Transportation Safety Board will continue to fight for effective minimum drinking age laws, enforcement, and sanctions.  And we will reject misguided attempts to eliminate the current minimum drinking age laws. It is simply folly to return to a problem of the 20th century.

I look forward to working with you to meet this challenge. 

Thank you for all that you do to make our young people safer and thank you for inviting me to speak with you this morning.


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