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Stop Blaming the Other Driver

WebMD Health News

May 2, 2000 -- Two new studies provide a chilling counter-punch to the notion that most children killed in alcohol-related wrecks are the victims of strangers: Two-thirds of the children who perish in such crashes were riding in the same car with the driver who had been drinking, and rarely had they been buckled in.

"We simply can't point fingers at someone else. As a society, we need to step up and say 'It's us.' It's not them," researcher Robert Foss, PhD, tells WebMD. "That is probably the most important message out of both these studies." Foss, a co-author of one of the studies, is with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Just about every other day in this country, a child is killed while driving with a drunken driver," adds the lead researcher of the other study, Kyran P. Quinlan, MD, MPH, a pediatrician with the federal CDC in Atlanta. "These deaths are largely preventable. Regardless of the law, we would encourage families to adopt a zero tolerance toward drinking and driving while children are in the car."

The studies appear in the May 3 Journal of the American Medical Association, and while the research methods were somewhat different, both reached similar conclusions about the deaths and injuries of children riding in cars whose drivers had consumed alcohol.

One study also looked more pointedly at what percentage of drinking drivers were under the legal drinking age of 21. The legal limit for driving while intoxicated varies for adults across the nation. In 31 states, the blood-alcohol level for drunken driving is .10; it is .08 in the others. For people under 21, though, there is really no allowable blood-alcohol level.

Using federal data from 1991-1996, the North Carolina researchers found there were 3,300 alcohol-related deaths among children under 16 during that period, and of those, about 66% were riding with drivers who had been drinking. In addition, they calculated that 30% of the children who died were with drinking drivers younger than 21. Overall, more male than female drivers were involved in alcohol-related deaths.

"Since the early 1980s, advocacy groups like MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] have really increased the spotlight on drinking and driving, and, unfortunately, they have created the image of the killer mowing down innocent victims. In two-thirds of the cases, it could have been the kids' parents," Foss tells WebMD. Neither group of researchers determined how many of the drivers were actually the children's parents or caregivers.

Foss and his colleagues propose raising the tax on beer and other alcohol products to discourage youth from purchasing them.

Adds Lew Margolis, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and associate professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at UNC-Chapel Hill: "We need to be concerned about whoever is driving our children; whether they are over 21 or under 21." Margolis was the lead researcher on the North Carolina study.

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