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Safety Board Urges Crackdown on Teenage Drunken Driving

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WASHINGTON--In an attempt to reduce the number of drunken-driving accidents involving teenagers, the National Transportation Safety Board last week urged a nationwide effort to revoke the licenses of adolescent drivers with any alcohol in their blood and to impose a nighttime curfew on younger teenage drivers.

While 15- to 20-year-olds make up just 7 percent of licensed drivers, they account for 15 percent of the driver fatalities each year, according to the board. Moreover, 40 percent of teenage drivers who died in 1991 tested positive for alcohol, the report states.

According to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cited in the report, nearly 53 percent of the teenage drivers who died in highway crashes in 1980 had a blood-alcohol content of 0.10 percent or higher. By 1987, the group says, the figure had dropped to 28 percent.

But over the last three years, the figure climbed again to 33 percent, the report says.

The report recommends that states establish a minimum blood-alcohol-content standard of zero percent for teenagers and revoke their licenses immediately if they show the slightest trace of alcohol in their systems.

Most states currently have a standard of 0.08 to 0.10 percent for all drivers as proof of inebriation.

The California legislature is weighing a bill to lower the standard for drivers under age 21 from 0.05 percent to 0.00 percent.

The report also urges states to enact curfews for 16- and 17-year-old drivers between midnight and 5 A.M., the period when most deaths due to drunken driving occur.

The report contends that government regulation of this sort is the most effective way to reduce the drunken-driving death toll. It cites as an example the 1984 federal law requiring states to raise the minimum drinking age to 21 or risk losing federal highway funds. The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration estimates that the higher drinking age has saved 12,000 lives.

Better Enforcement Urged

The board also proposed enlisting businesses that sell alcohol--including bars, restaurants, and off-premise retailers--in the effort by urging that businesses that serve alcohol to minors be subject to significant fines.

Police departments also must take the problem of teenage drunken driving more seriously, said Alan Pollock, a spokesman for the board.

"We've got to have some kind of enforcement that makes sense, because enforcement is the most effective deterrent,'' he said. "We shouldn't give teenagers light community-service work, but a message that this [behavior] is not acceptable.''

Anticipating objections that curfews would violate an adolescent's civil rights, Mr. Pollock said "we are not dealing with rights here, we are dealing with the privilege of driving. Its not a draconian method to keep teenagers home.''

Some exceptions to the curfew for teenagers who work at night or need to travel could be worked out in each state, Mr. Pollock suggested. Already, eight states have imposed curfews on 15- to 17-year-old drivers, and several others have toughened their penalties on bars and restaurants that serve minors alcohol, he said.

Because studies have shown that teenagers tend to drink alcohol in large quantities, often with the sole purpose of getting drunk, restricting access is the key to reducing fatalities, supporters of the proposal said.

Board officials say they will urge every state to adopt curfew and license-revocation laws, and will send their recommendations to every member of Congress.

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