NEW YORK — Many children die in alcohol-related car accidents each year and a new study suggests the majority are riding in the same car as the impaired driver.
The exact rate of children’s deaths while riding with drunk drivers varies by state, researchers write.
“Despite what’s commonly thought, it’s not a family in one car and a drunk driver in another,” Dr. Kyran Quinlan told Reuters Health.
Quinlan is the study’s lead author from the Erie Family Health Center in Chicago.
He and his colleagues write in Pediatrics that about 1,210 children younger than 15 years old were killed in a car crash in 2010. About one in five such crashes involves drunk driving.
For the new study, the researchers analyzed data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which tracks deadly car accidents in the U.S.
They found that 2,344 children younger than 15 years old died in 2,075 car crashes involving drunk drivers between 2001 and 2010.
Of those, 65 percent were riding with the drunk driver.
Over the 10-year period, the number of child passengers killed while riding with a drunk driver decreased by 41 percent, from 197 in 2001 to 116 in 2010.
Quinlan said the authors can’t say what caused the drop, but it may be related to several campaigns against drinking and driving and increased use of child seatbelts.
About 61 percent of the children who died while riding with a drunk driver were not restrained.
The likelihood of a child being buckled up decreased as the child’s age and the driver’s blood alcohol level increased, the researchers found.
“About 70 percent of the time, the drunk driver survived the crash,” Quinlan said. “This means many times the crashes were survivable, and if the child were buckled up, they might have lived.”
The rate of children dying while riding with drunk drivers varied by state, according to the researchers.
South Dakota, New Mexico and Mississippi had the highest rates of death from children riding with an impaired driver. Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey had the lowest measurable rates.
South Dakota had about one child die while riding with a drunk driver per 100,000 children in the state. On the other hand, New Jersey had 0.07 children die while riding with drunk drivers per 100,000 children, or about one in 1.4 million.
Dr. Michael Siegel, from the Boston University School of Public Health, said laws regarding alcohol vary by state.
While he did not do a formal analysis of the study’s state-based findings and alcohol laws, he said, “You do see a pattern that does seem to correspond with the strength of their alcohol laws.”
Siegel was not involved with the new study but has researched alcohol policies.
“I think that this a great study,” he told Reuters Health. “This is a solid study.”
Quinlan and his colleagues suggest several steps to possibly reduce the number of children who die while riding with drunk drivers.
Those include sobriety checkpoints, minimum drinking ages, enforcing blood alcohol limits and zero-tolerance laws. Installing breathalyzers in car ignition switches may also be an option.
Quinlan said many states have child endangerment laws that include driving drunk with a child in the vehicle. The strength of those laws differs by state, however.
“We felt that if we could provide these state specific data, [states] could see where we are in this and perhaps consider strengthening their child endangerment laws,” he said.