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Teen-Age Traffic Deaths Are Up Despite Increase in Drinking Age

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Despite the enactment of tougher drunk-driving laws nationwide and the passage in most states of legislation raising the legal drinking age to 21, traffic deaths caused by drunken drivers--particularly teen-agers--rose markedly in 1986, after a general decline in the early 1980's.

Using calculations from the U.S. Transportation Department, a new study by Ralph Hingson, chief of social and behavioral sciences at the Boston University school of public health, shows that overall drunk-driving fatalities increased by 7 percent in 1986 after an 11 percent decline between 1982 and 1985.

The number of 15- to 19-year-old drivers killed in single-vehicle night crashes increased by 17 percent in 1986, his study shows, after a decline of 34 percent between 1980 and 1985.

At the same time, according to a second study by John McCarthy, professor of sociology at Catholic University, media coverage of drunk driving has declined over the last two years. Tabulating the number of news articles on drunken driving published between 1979 and 1986, Mr. McCarthy's study shows that, after reaching a peak in 1983, media attention to the problem has declined significantly.

Although Mr. Hingson's statistical report did not attempt to measure the impact of media coverage on attitudes toward drinking and driving, he suggests there may be a correlation.

An earlier study conducted in Maine and Massachusetts, states which enacted tougher drunk-driving laws in the early part of the decade, revealed that few residents believed the laws were being adequately enforced. And statistics indicated that the increased penalties had not resulted in sustained reductions in6drunk-driving arrests and fatal crashes.

Given these findings, Mr. Hingson says, the impact of media attention and informal social pressure "may be as important as government regulations in reducing drunk driving and fatal crashes."

The sharp rise in youth fatalities may indicate, he says, that a new generation of teen-agers is driving that was not affected by the extensive media coverage of the early 1980's. Without exposure to such information, teen-age drivers in 1986 may not have been as conscious of the dangers of drinking and driving as their predecessors, he suggests.--jw

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