Jay's World of Abstracts

Jay's World of Abstracts 00016

Zero Tolerance Laws for Youth SYNTHESIS

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation

[Standard disclaimer: The nature of abstracts are that they are pieces of something larger. Not everyone is going to be happy with my choice of abstracts from any larger work, so if you are dissatisfied, I would refer you to the original document, which should be able to be found on the Internet. I encourage others to make their own abstracts to satisfy their needs. I would be happy to publish them here.

Jay's Introduction

Here are some actual FACTS about the subject of "zero telerance" from the venerable DOT.

I produced this abstract using time paid for by the Quay County Maternal Child and Community Health Council with funds from the New Mexico Department of Health.


Persons of ages 16-20 years have the highest risk of a being killed in a traffic crash of any age group (U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA, 1998). In fact, in 1998, motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death for this age group. Additionally, 18-year-olds constituted the single year age group with the highest number of fatalities (U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA, In Press). More 21- year-olds died in alcohol-related crashes than any other age group. This applies both to drivers and passengers. In addition, some 22% of the drivers in the 16-20 year old age group's fatal crashes had a BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) of .01 or higher. More 18-year-olds died in lower BAC (between .01 and .09) alcohol-related crashes than any other age. In fact, 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-, 21- and 22-year-olds are the top 6 ages of people that die in low BAC crashes. Zero tolerance laws for youth address this problem directly.

The concept of zero tolerance laws for youth is based on a simple proposition: since it is illegal for persons under 21 to drink beverage alcohol, it should also be illegal for them to drive with any alcohol in their system. Unfortunately, until fairly recently, many states' drinking driving laws failed to acknowledge this, and the "legal limit" remained at .08 or .10 for drivers of all ages. Now, all states and the District of Columbia have zero tolerance laws.

These new laws differ in the maximum BAC they permit (.00, .01, or .02), the way they are implemented, and their impact on enforcement, adjudication and sanctioning. As a result of these variations, differences can be expected in the laws' impact on youthful alcohol-related traffic crashes. This study examined both process and impact issues related to the adoption and implementation of these new laws in the four case-study states. The states were selected to represent both states which have had zero tolerance laws for a long time and ones which have more recently adopted such laws. The four states studied were Florida, Maine, Oregon, and Texas.


Examination of crash data reveals a gradually increasing effect on nighttime single vehicle injury crashes which now is at five percent. This reduction is statistically significant, but is below what has been observed in some other states and is likely to be a attributable at least partly to nighttime curfews imposed by Florida's graduated licensing law.


It appears that the purely administrative character of Maine's zero tolerance law provides many benefits to its smooth implementation with no perceptible drawback.

Time series analyses reflect a dramatic 36% decrease in nighttime single vehicle injury crashes for the affectable age group beginning in the months when the legislative debate was underway about reducing the permissible level from .00 to .02. This benefit was maintained in the succeeding months after the law formally went into effect.


The recent change in Oregon's zero tolerance law's applicability from persons under 19 to all drivers under 21 is associated with a 40% reduction in nighttime single vehicle injury crashes.

The zero tolerance law for drivers under 21 went into effect in the fall of 1997 in Texas. For the first year the law was in effect, the arrest/suspension rate for the zero tolerance offense was fairly low. However, during the next year, the rate rose to .87% of under 21 licensed drivers. Texas has also mounted a fairly extensive public information and education program to educate underage drivers about the new law. Nonetheless, examination of statewide crash data does not reveal any reduction in nighttime single vehicle injury crashes associated with the implementation of the law.

Table 6-2: Characteristics os Zero Tolerance Laws in the Four Study States
Characteristic Florida Maine Oregon Texas
Effective Date of Initial Zero Tolerance Law 1/97 6/83 7/89 9/97
Effective date of measure studied 1/97 10/95 7/91 9/97
Zero tolerance BAC level .02 .00 .00 .00
Administrative license action? Yes Yes Yes Yes
License suspension/revocation period 6 months 1 year 90 days 60 days
Eligibility for hardship license begins after 30 days Immediately after 30 days after 30 days
Passive alcohol sensors used? No No Yes Yes

It may well be that in both Florida and Texas the law may have to "mature" to demonstrate its ultimate effectiveness. That is, the law enforcement community may need to become more comfortable with the law to be able to most effectively enforce it, and the target population may have to be convinced that the law is truly being enforced and implemented.

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