Increases in alcohol-related fatalities among young women drivers have outpaced the decade-long rise in such deaths among young men, researchers have found.
Between 1995 and 2007, the increase in the number of women ages 16 to 24 involved in fatal, alcohol-related crashes rose by 3.1 percent, according to Dr. Virginia Tsai of the University of California San Diego, and colleagues.
That compares with a jump of 1.2 percent among young men, the researchers reported in the journal Injury Prevention.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 23 percent of alcohol-related fatal crashes in 2007 involved drivers 16 to 24, and in only 34 percent of those crashes were seat belts used -- a decline of 6 percent in safety restraint use in one year alone.
Historically, young men have been over-represented among alcohol-related automobile crashes.
The increasing gender equalization among adolescents, however, with young women being encouraged to take on more traditional male roles, also may lead to their adoption of more aggression and risk-taking, the researchers wrote.
Substance abuse, particularly with prescription drugs and alcohol, also has increased among teenage girls, they noted.
To examine the effects of these trends on automobile fatalities, Tsai and colleagues examined crash data for young women from the traffic safety administration's Fatal Analysis Reporting System.
Blood alcohol concentrations of 0.01 g/dL and higher were considered positive, and concentrations were stratified as being below the legal limit for driving (0.01 to 0.07 g/dL), at or above the legal limit (0.08 to 0.14 g/dL), and severely impaired (0.15 g/dL and higher, a level associated with a 100-fold increase in crash risk).
The percentage of young women in fatal crashes with positive blood alcohol concentrations increased on weekdays by 3.5 percent and on weekends by 2.2 percent.
Among young men with positive blood alcohol concentrations the increases were 1.5 percent on weekdays and 0.4 percent on weekends.
Among young men, the overall rate of alcohol-related fatal crashes decreased by 2.5 per 100,000 annually between 1995 and 2007, with decreases being seen in boys ages 16 to 20 and no changes occurring in rates for those 21 to 24.
For young women, the changes in annual rates by age were:
Age 16, a decrease of 0.8 per 100,000
17 and 18, unchanged
19 and 20, an increase of 0.7 per 100,000
21 to 24, an increase of 0.6 per 100,000
Most of the overall increase was for young drivers of both sexes with the highest -- and deadliest -- levels of blood alcohol.
Among women 16 to 24, fatal crashes associated with the highest level of impairment increased by 2 percent, while among men of the same age group the increase was 2.4 percent.
Passage of the 1984 national minimum drinking age law, which required states to enforce age 21 as the minimum age for purchasing alcoholic beverages, resulted in a reduction in youthful highway deaths.
"Federal, state, and local governments in the USA have invested considerable education and prevention efforts trying to decrease as well as control the rates of alcohol-involved fatal crashes among young drivers," the researchers wrote.
However, a group of university presidents and other officials now have suggested that the age be lowered to 18 years in an attempt to decriminalize alcohol use by minors and thereby counter increases in binge drinking seen on college campuses.
Tsai and colleagues disagree. "The results of this study should raise serious concern regarding the effect of lowering the minimum legal drinking age to 18 years," they wrote.
"These findings should raise the urgency of implementing effective gender-specific countermeasures to alcohol-impaired driving, including messages and education targeted to women in this age group," they stated.