The legal minimum drinking age in every state has been 21 since 1988. Many states had lowered the drinking age in the late 1960s and early 1970s to age 18. The results were disturbing, as the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities rose precipitously.

For those under age 21 who drink and drive, it’s not about driving under the influence – it’s about any drinking and driving, period. Every state has a “zero tolerance” statute of some kind. Most states have a blood –alcohol cutoff of 0.02; any reading equal to or higher than that is a violation of the law – as opposed to the 0.08 cutoff in most states for drivers age 21 and over. Some states have a true zero-tolerance policy; any reading above 0.00 spells trouble for the young driver. To provide some context, a blood-alcohol level of 0.02 can be achieved with one beer.

In some states, the penalties incurred might be administrative only, such as an automatic suspension of license. However, the punishment may be stiffer in others. In Georgia underage driver’s face a license suspension for either 6 months (under 0.08 blood alcohol level) or 12 months (0.08 or higher) and no limited permit is allowed; a fine of no less than $300.00 and no more than $1000.00 plus any statutory surcharges; 10 days to 12 months, all except for 24 hours may be suspended, stayed or probated; and at least 20 hours of community service. Underage drinking drivers may be subject to a DUI charge or related crime. They’ll also likely be cited for consumption of and/or possession of alcohol by a minor. Repeated offenses will be met with more severe punishment.

Underage drinking and driving statistics are alarming. Nearly a third of all deaths of 15-20 year olds are the result of motor vehicle crashes, and approximately 35 percent of those involve alcohol. Alcohol as a factor in auto accidents is twice as high percentage-wise for underage drivers as it is for those ages 21 and over.

Some progress has been made over the last decade or so, but far too many lives continue to be taken or irreparably harmed by this often tragic combination of activities.