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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Some holiday cheer: Drinking and driving on the decline

Frank Greve Knight Ridder

WASHINGTON – When handcarts of holiday booze roll out of Ace Beverage, a major capital party supplier, the typical load is far different from a generation ago. There’s no Scotch “unless it’s for an older group,” said owner Steve Siegel, and no bourbon “unless they’re Southerners.”

Vodka aside, there’s little hard liquor nowadays, but lots of bottled water. That reflects what Siegel, 56, said is a huge social change: “Nobody thinks it’s cool any longer to go to an office party and get drunk.”

And as Ace’s clients go, so goes the nation. Government figures show alcohol consumption is down about 20 percent nationwide since the early ‘80s, reflecting both tougher laws and tamer tastes. The decline also reflects an aging population that’s drinking less.

The clearest dividend is a 36 percent drop in traffic fatalities involving alcohol since 1982. For Americans under 30, the declines are even greater. The drops add up to more than 312,000 U.S. lives saved since 1982, according to an analysis that will appear in the Journal of Safety Research in January.

“It’s a tremendous reduction, on a par with the effect of seat belts,” said James Fell, the study’s author, who recently retired from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The reported drop in alcohol-related traffic fatalities has been greatest since 1982 for the 16-to-29-year-olds that parents – and often peers – worry the most about.

“Their alcohol consumption levels haven’t dropped much, but their drunk driving has,” said James Lange, a psychologist at San Diego State University who specializes in young driver behavior. Whether by designating drivers or staying out of cars, “they separate consumption from driving a lot more than teens and young adults used to,” Lange said.

The bottom line is that alcohol-related traffic fatalities since 1982 are down 56 percent among 16-to-20-year-olds, according to NHTSA figures. Among those ages 21 to 29, they’re down 47 percent. Other age groups show smaller declines in the alcohol-related traffic death toll, which dropped from 26,172 in 1982 to 16,684 in 2004.

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