Drinking and Driving Death Rates Among College Students Have Been Significantly Overestimated, U.Va. Study Finds

February 8, 2011 — The rate of college student deaths from drinking and driving accidents is not nearly as high as leading national statistics suggest, according to a breakthrough University of Virginia pilot study.

The study found fatality rates up to 89 percent lower among Virginia college students than the leading estimates.

Why such a vast variation in statistics? The reason likely lies in the way researchers arrived at their estimates.

"Until now, all leading estimates were based not on actual measures of college student data, but rather on the assumption that college student drinking and driving fatality rates were the same as the general population," said Dr. James C. Turner, executive director of U.Va. Student Health and lead author of the study, which appears in the January-March issue of the Journal of American College Health.

Instead, Turner's study looks directly at college students as a distinct population. He and U.Va. colleagues analyzed survey results from two-thirds of the 24 Virginia colleges and universities with membership in the American College Health Association, the nation's leading professional college health association. The incident rates found by Turner's team were between 1.7 and 4.3 deaths per 100,000 college students, while previous estimates ranged from 14.1 to 15.2 deaths per 100,000.

"It's hard to believe leading statistics aren't derived from any collected data of actual college student drinking and driving incidents or resulting deaths," Turner said. "Previous estimates merely involved the comparison of national traffic accident reports and college enrollment as a proportion of census data. It's quite a leap to assume that college student health and behavior is the same as the general public.

"Our study clearly demonstrates the need to collect more reliable statistics based on actual outcomes in the college population, but more importantly it suggests that college students in Virginia suffer far fewer alcohol-related traffic deaths than the general population," said Turner, the immediate past president of the American College Health Association. "There are many factors that likely contribute to lower alcohol-related vehicular fatality rates among college students. It's important to better understand what factors contribute to the benefit and protection afforded by alcohol education and/or the campus environment."

Turner and U.Va. colleagues are in the midst of conducting a national study using the same methodology and anticipate results within the year.

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