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For safer roads // CRACK DOWN ON UNDERAGE DRINKERS

As Florida was ringing in the new year, the state began taking a hard line against underage drinkers who drive. A new law gives authorities the power to immediately suspend the drivers' licenses of people under age 21 who drink alcohol and operate a motor vehicle. Under the so-called zero-tolerance law, young drivers will lose their licenses for six months if their blood-alcohol level is as low as 0.02 percent _ reflecting the consumption of about one alcoholic beverage. The concentration of blood alcohol needed for a driving-under-the-influence conviction remains at 0.08 percent.

The law was based on studies that have found young, inexperienced drivers, even when sober, are more likely to be involved in auto accidents than adults. Factor alcohol into the equation, and the result can be deadly. In 1995, 1,073 people died in alcohol-related traffic deaths on Florida roads, an 11.7 percent increase over the previous year. About 10 percent of fatal alcohol-related crashes were caused by drunken drivers under age 21, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Underage drinkers were responsible for about 7.25 percent of all crashes in Florida in 1995.

As these statistics suggest, drunken driving is an even bigger problem among adults, and more needs to be done to get them off the roads. But stiffening penalties for youngsters who drink and drive reflects basic common sense: It is illegal for people under age 21 to drink alcohol, so it is not unreasonable to deal more severely with those who break the law twice, by drinking and then getting behind the wheel.

What's more, there is evidence that zero-tolerance laws are already working in about 40 states. The laws are credited with a 34 percent drop in nighttime fatal crashes involving adolescent drivers in the first four states that put the legislation on the books. In Maryland, the overall number of alcohol-related crashes involving young drivers fell by 11 percent after that state's law took effect.

One study estimates Florida's legislation could save 15 to 30 lives each year. The same study suggests if similar laws were adopted nationwide, at least 375 fatal crashes could be prevented annually.

Those are encouraging statistics. It will be up to young people to exercise greater responsibility before they get behind the steering wheel. And it will be up to state and local police to work toward similarly positive results in Florida by vigorously enforcing drunken driving laws that apply to teens as well as adults.

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