Getting behind the wheel after having alcohol or any mind-altering and mood-altering substance is not a good idea. Still, despite this fact, some people take their chances anyway, pairing these two activities together and causing life-changing consequences for themselves and others. 

Some of these people are minors old enough to drive but too young to consume alcohol legally. While it’s been reported that fewer teens are drinking and driving, the problem of teen drinking lingers, and so do the challenges of keeping alcohol out of the hands of people too young to drink it so they won’t drive with it in their systems.

More than 3,500 people under age 21 die every year from excessive drinking, per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, illustrating how using this substance can have fatal outcomes for underage drinkers. Some of these deaths stem from unintentional injuries, including DUI crashes caused by teenage drinking and driving.

Teen Drivers Already a High-Risk Group—Without Alcohol Use

More than 2,000 people died in traffic accidents involving a driver between the ages 15 and 18 in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). While the federal agency doesn’t detail how many of these accidents involved teenage drinking and driving, it does warn against underage drinking and advises parents to remind their teens that:

  • It is against the law to drink alcohol if you’re not 21 years old; and
  • Driving under the influence of any substance, including illicit, over-the-counter, and prescription drugs, can lead to injuries and deaths.

DUI crashes are 100% preventable, authorities say, yet every day, about 28 people in the United States die in drunk-driving crashes—one person every 52 minutes, the NHTSA reports. While DUI accident deaths fell to their lowest point in 2019 since 1982, more than 10,000 people died that year due to drunk driving accidents that did not have to happen.

Teen Drivers More Likely to Be in an Accident, Data Show

Teen drivers already have several risk factors to deal with before alcohol even enters the picture. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the risk of having a traffic accident is highest among youths 16 to 19 years old.  It reports that per mile driven, teen motorists in this age group are nearly three times as likely as drivers aged 20-plus to be involved in a fatal accident. Also, it reports that teenagers made up 7% of motor vehicle crash deaths in 2019. 

Factors that increase risks to young drivers’ safety include:

  • Inexperience: A lack of experience on the road means young drivers are at risk of making errors in judgment while driving. They may not always recognize when a situation is dangerous or know what to do when it occurs.
  • Not wearing a seat belt: CDC data shows that seat belt use among teens is low. According to data it cites, 43% of U.S. high-school students did not wear a seat belt in 2019. It also reports that 48% (nearly half) of teen drivers and passengers aged 16-19 were not wearing seat belts when they died in fatal passenger vehicle crashes.
  • Nighttime and weekend driving: Accident data in 2019 show that 40% of motor vehicle accidents among teen drivers happened between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. and that 52% occurred on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.

NIAAA: Underage Drinking Is a Public Health Problem

Alcohol use among minors is regarded as a serious public health issue in the U.S., as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) underscores. It emphasizes that underage drinking comes with risks that affect everyone, not just the young people who drink alcohol before they’re of age. Some of these risks are highlighted above, which could be caused by a number of reasons, including underage drinking.

Some Teens Are Having More Than ‘Just a Few Sips’ of Alcohol

The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 24.6% of survey respondents ages 14-15 said they had at least one alcoholic beverage in 2019 (Table 2.6B). That same year, 7 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 reported that they had more than “just a few sips” of alcohol in a 30-day period (Table 7.1A).

Even though young drivers are less likely than adults to operate a motor vehicle after drinking alcohol, according to the IIHS, their crash risk is higher when they do, even if they have low-to-moderate blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels, data show. 

Blood Alcohol Concentration Levels in the U.S.

The federal BAC limit in the U.S. is 0.08%. This is the limit that defines when a person is intoxicated under the law. With the exception of Utah, it is illegal to drive with a BAC of 0.08% or higher in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. According to the NHTSA, a third of all vehicle accidents in the U.S. involve intoxicated drivers whose BAC was 0.08% or higher.

Still, it is important to note that a person can still be declared too drunk to drive the minute alcohol starts to impair their driving ability. A person does not have to have a standard BAC to be declared too drunk to drive. States can set different BAC levels depending on who’s operating the vehicle. For example, in Texas, any detectable amount of alcohol in the system of an underage driver makes them too drunk to drive.

Alcohol’s Availability Contributes to Underage Drinking

Alcohol is sold in many places and is widely available for purchase, including those under 21, the U.S. legal drinking age since 1984. While raising the legal age to buy alcohol has had success over the years, the substance’s accessibility accounts for why it is difficult to keep alcohol out of those who are legally too young to drink it.

Many young people start drinking alcohol, although data show that in recent years, current and binge drinking among the nation’s high-school students has seen a general decline, according to the CDC.

The CDC cites data from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which shows that within a 30-day period, high-school students who responded reported the following:

  • 29% drank alcoholic beverages
  • 14% binge drank (had four or more drinks within two hours, putting them above the legal BAC of 0.08%)
  • 5% operated a motor vehicle after having alcohol
  • 17% rode with someone who had drunk alcohol

Why Underage Drinking Happens

Many adolescents who drink alcohol have various issues they are dealing with that prompt them to seek out alcohol. According to the CDC, young people who engage in underage drinking may be experiencing:

  • Problems in school (low grades, higher rates of absenteeism)
  • Social problems (e.g., fighting, not participating in youth activities)
  • Unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected sexual activity
  • Memory problems
  • Other substance use
  • Physical and sexual violence
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Brain development problems
  • Growth, sexual development problems
  • Alcohol-related traffic accidents, other hazards due to drinking, such as falls and drowning
  • Legal problems related to drunk driving
  • Increased risk of suicide

Youths who binge drink are at higher risk of experiencing problems than those who don’t. 

Binge Drinking Alcohol Among Youths Is Particularly Concerning

According to the NIAAA, “More than 90 percent of all alcoholic drinks consumed by young people are consumed through binge drinking.” While young drinkers drink less alcohol than adults of legal drinking age do, they drink more when they do, according to the organization. 

The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that people between ages of 12 and 20 drink 4% of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. The survey also shows that in 2019, at least 4 million young people self-reported binge drinking in a 30-day period; 825,000 respondents said they binged on alcohol five or more days in a month.

Binge drinking is dangerous for several reasons. Young people who engage in this behavior are at risk of alcohol overwhelming their mental and physical capabilities, putting them in risky situations while intoxicated. Poor decisions made under the influence can lead to serious injuries and life-threatening situations, including alcohol poisoning, a possibly fatal condition that can happen faster than drinkers realize.

Drinking too much alcohol in a short time, which is what bingeing is, can cause one to take in more of the substance than the body can process. If a person has overdosed on alcohol due to bingeing on alcohol, the following signs may be present:

  • Confusion
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Slow or irregular breathing (10-plus seconds between breaths) 
  • Clammy skin
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Struggling to remain alert, conscious
  • Seizures (due to low blood sugar levels)
  • Lack of a gag reflex (which stops one from choking)
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)

There can be other signs, and a person who has overdosed on alcohol need not have all the signs listed above. Get immediate medical help by calling 911 or getting a person to the nearest hospital emergency room as possible.

Indulging in excessive alcohol use can also bring other health problems, including:

  • Liver damage
  • Heart disease
  • Brain and central nervous system problems
  • Pancreas damage
  • Cancer, including breast cancer, liver cancer, and esophageal cancer

It can also weaken one’s immune system, making it easier for a person to contract diseases.

Why Teen Drinking Happens and Why It is Dangerous

teenage-drunk-driving

The reasons why some underage drinkers indulge in alcohol use before they are legally allowed to do so vary widely. Some young people are exposed to substance use at an early age due to the people they were around or the environment they grew up in. The people around them may have used alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and other substances, so it may seem OK to try substances early.

Some teens are curious and want to try something new, while others feel the need to prove themselves “cool” to their peers. Peer pressure is a common reason, even in a day and age where being unique is also seen as “cool.” 

Per the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS), 86% of teens know someone in their peer group who smokes, drinks, or uses drugs during the school day. Some young people may find it difficult to resist wanting to try a substance at least once because of this. 

Academic pressures, pressures at home, or just mental health issues involving stress, depression, anxiety, and other conditions also lead some minors to turn to alcohol. While not everyone who tries alcohol will develop a drinking problem, using substances in adolescence can be a slippery slope. “Alcohol use often begins during adolescence and becomes more likely as adolescents age,” as the NIAAA writes.

There is also the possibility that early drinking habits will follow many young people into their college years, where the pressures often increase. If alcohol becomes a coping tool, people on this path could develop alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Teen Alcohol Use Can Affect the Developing Brain

It has been shown that drinking and using drugs in the formative years can have effects down the line on multiple areas, including one’s brain development.

Drinking in the early years can disrupt how the brain naturally forms, rewiring how it functions permanently. This happens because the brain hasn’t fully matured until about age 25

As the adolescent brain is developing, young people’s bodies are changing, and they are dealing with changing emotions as well. Their decisions may be spur-of-the-moment, not well thought out, or rushed during this period. If alcohol is part of the mix, it can only complicate matters for them. 

The brain also remembers the dopamine rush of euphoria and other relaxed feelings that came with their first alcoholic drinking, making it difficult for a person to forget it. The brain wishes to repeat activities that make us feel good, so a young person may not be able to ignore cravings for another drink.

Continuing to give in to these cravings could lead to regular alcohol use and possibly alcohol addiction. 

Legal Consequences of Teen Drinking and Driving

While the laws on teen drinking and driving offenses vary across the country, there are consequences for a DUI (driving under the influence) conviction for underage drinkers. In California, for example, underage motorists (anyone under age 21) who drive after drinking can be charged under the state’s zero-tolerance law. 

Under this law, the maximum blood-alcohol concentration level for underage drivers is 0.01%. If their BAC is 0.05% or higher, they can also be charged with an underage DUI and a standard DUI at the same time. They can be arrested and penalized the same as drivers who are age 21 and older. If the underage motorist is convicted on a DUI charge, they will automatically lose their license for a year.

If the underage driver is under age 18, they will lose their driver’s license for a year or until they turn 18, whichever comes first. However, a judge can still opt to take away the underage driver’s vehicle in addition to their license. There is also the possibility of paying thousands of dollars in fines, attending driving safety classes as well as those on substance abuse.

Impaired driving can also bring long-term consequences, too

Jail time, legal fees, towing fees, attorney’s fees, and more are just some of the things that can result from underage DUI problems. Medical costs, property damage, and lost wages only add to the problem.

However, DUI convictions for teenage drinking and driving can have longer-term consequences that some people may not be aware of until after they have gotten into legal trouble. In many cases, DUI charges stay on a person’s driving record for years. This can affect their ability to get affordable car insurance as their premiums could be higher because of their record. Their future scholarship and employment opportunities could also be at risk.

Young people generally don’t think about the consequences of their actions so far down the line. Parents and guardians should talk with their children about drinking and driving as well as responsible driving behavior to prepare their young drivers for life on the road.

Is Your Teen Drinking? The Warning Signs

If you are a parent of a pre-teen or a teenager who you suspect may be indulging in alcohol but are unsure, there are some ways to tell. Keeping an eye out for these signs can help you detect the problem and address it before it gets worse. In the early stages of drinking, you may not be able to tell if there is a substance use problem. But as time passes, substance use and misuse become harder to hide. If your teen is drinking, you may notice:

  • Mood changes (short temper, irritability)
  • Changes in appearance (hygiene habits could change, disheveled appearance, bloodshot eyes)
  • Smelling alcohol on the one’s breath, on their clothes
  • Slurred speech
  • Delayed reaction times
  • Poor motor coordination
  • Tiredness, changes in energy level
  • Memory issues
  • Poor focus or concentration
  • Changes in friends group
  • Increased withdrawal from family, friends
  • Poor school performance
  • Rebellious attitude or behavior

If you notice any of these changes in your child, they may have an alcohol or substance use issue. It is important to act sooner rather than later to face it head-on. However, before you do, there are some things to remember.

As the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) advises, it can be hard for a parent to accept that their child is drinking. You should not blame yourself or your child. The focus at this point should be on finding help for your child. Getting treatment for the substance use and the child’s mental health is the place to start. You can reach out to a local substance abuse treatment provider or call your insurance company for referrals to providers who can help.

Seek Out Alcohol Treatment for Your Teen as Soon as Possible

When a person has a substance use disorder (SUD), there is always the possibility that it can worsen if a person does not get the proper treatment they need to address it. If it is left to linger on its own, the person could be in worse shape as time passes. It can be very difficult to stop drinking alcohol outside of treatment.

Getting professional treatment for a teen dealing with alcohol use is a priority. It can help them work through their substance abuse issue by understanding why they use alcohol in the first place.

If possible, find a treatment program that specializes in treating adolescents for substance use. Such a program will know what teenagers need in treatment, which will differ from older adults. Each person who attends treatment is different and must have their own program that is customized to treat their unique needs.

Depending on how far along your child is in their alcohol dependence, they may have to undergo a medical detox before being placed in an inpatient or outpatient program. A primary care doctor and mental health professional are qualified to determine the best treatment based on your teen’s health and medical and substance use history.

An accredited facility that offers therapy and/or counseling for individuals, groups, and families can help them get on the path to sobriety. Your teen may be eligible for a medication-assisted treatment program (MAT), which combines prescription medication with psychotherapy to reduce alcohol cravings while a person attends treatment. After treatment ends, there are resources to help your teen maintain their sobriety and work on attaining their personal goals. They can continue treatment on an outpatient basis and connect with a supportive recovery community where they can meet and connect with like-minded peers.

Delphi Can Help You Find Treatment for Your Teen

Teenage drinking and driving are against the law, but it also indicates that a minor has a problem with substance use that needs prompt attention. If your child has an addiction to alcohol or other substances, we can help you find an accredited facility in our network that can help you and your young loved one get the treatment you are looking for. Delphi Behavioral Health Group has more than a dozen treatment facilities across five U.S. states that offer individualized treatment for all levels of addiction.


You can reach out to us today with a phone call or online chat to get started on exploring your treatment options. We are here for you and your family and want to help in any way that we can.

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