To reduce alcohol-related fatal crashes among youth, all states have adopted a minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21. States adopting MLDAs of 21 in the early 1980s experienced a 10 - 15 percent decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths among drivers in the targeted ages compared with states that did not adopt such laws (General Accounting Office, 1987). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that the MLDA of 21 prevents 700-1,000 traffic deaths annually among persons under 21, and that over 18,000 traffic deaths among persons under 21 have been prevented since 1975 (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1999).

MLDA laws not only decreased drinking among persons under age 21, they also lowered drinking among people age 21 to 25 who grew up in states with MLDAs of 21 relative to those who grew up in other states (O'Malley & Wagenaar, 1991). However, it is not known whether these laws, and other efforts to reduce underage drinking, lower both driving after drinking and alcohol-related motor vehicle crash involvement later in life.

A recent analysis of the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (NLAES) found that age of drinking onset was strongly related to having experienced alcohol dependence during one's life as defined by the diagnostic criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Among both males and females and persons with and without a family history of alcoholism, persons who began drinking regularly before age 14 were at least 3 times more likely than those who did not drink alcohol until they were over age 21 to experience diagnosable alcohol dependence during their life (Grant, 1998). Questions in that survey permit us to explore whether age of drinking onset is similarly related to whether respondents, ever in their life, and specifically during the year prior to the survey, reported having:

  • driven a motor vehicle after having too much to drink; and
  • been in a motor vehicle crash because of their drinking

Independent of factors such as alcohol dependence that are related to early age of drinking onset.