PARIS -- The accident bore the familiar details of a drunk-driving tragedy. Six young people, age 16 to 20, had been out late at a club. On the long ride toward home early on a Saturday morning, their small car smashed into a bridge pillar, killing everyone. Witnesses said the driver, 20, appeared drunk as he left the club.
The Nov. 20 accident in Sausheim, a town in eastern France, shocked people across the country. But in a society in which the legal drinking age is 16, the resulting public debate focused not on how to keep alcohol from young people, but on how to enforce highway rules more strictly and crack down on errant drivers. News coverage took particular note that the driver had no license or insurance.
That response underscored a fundamental difference between U.S. and European approaches to drunk driving among young people: Americans have raised the drinking age to 21; Europeans keep it low but put faith in stiff rules and regulations.
While most European countries issue driver's licenses at age 18, the difficulty of passing the test, high insurance costs and wide use of trains and buses all mean that young people generally begin to drive much later than in the United States.
"They start drinking at 16, but they cannot drive until they are 18," said Florence Berteletti Kemp, a communications officer in Brussels for Eurocare, a private group that campaigns to reduce Europeans' alcohol consumption. "I think in the U.S., there is an expectation to have your own car. It's not that young people in Europe are more careful. It's that they haven't got the car."
Twenty years ago, the United States raised the drinking age in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to 21. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in July 1984, making the United States the only country with such a high legal drinking age. In Europe, by contrast, most countries allow people to buy beer and wine at 16. In many places, such as France, drinking starts much earlier, with parents giving their children small amounts of wine at holiday celebrations. Switzerland allows drinking at age 14, and Poland and Portugal have no minimum drinking age.
At the same time, most European countries have in recent years cracked down on drunk driving and on speeding, which Europeans typically consider the far larger problem of the two.
In France, for example, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin recently ordered a road safety campaign to bring down the number of road fatalities -- long one of the highest in Europe.
Radar units are being installed on highways -- a total of 560 are due by the end of the year -- and police are running sobriety checkpoints. The campaign has cut the number of traffic deaths this year by a fifth, to 5,731, according to government figures.
While the crackdown has led to a decrease in drinking and driving incidents, a side effect has been a decline in restaurant sales of wine. Winemakers recently held protests around the country seeking government compensation for their diminished sales.
Direct comparison of accident and drinking statistics from the United States and Europe is problematic, because there is no common database and because countries compile and interpret the figures in different ways. What is known is that in the 15 countries that made up the European Union before this year's eastward expansion, traffic accidents killed about 40,000 people each year. About a quarter of those deaths were believed to be alcohol-related.
Statistics suggest that younger drivers are most likely to be involved in alcohol-related traffic accidents, but the problem is most severe among drivers in their early to mid-twenties. Drivers in the 18-to-21 age range have a slightly lower rate.
A study by Eurocare's Institute of Alcohol Studies showed that in Britain, 52 percent of convicted drunk drivers are under age 33. But the highest rate of alcohol-related accidents occurs among men age 20 to 24, with a lower rate for drivers younger than that. In Germany, the pattern is the same: Drivers from 21 to 24 have a higher rate of alcohol-related accidents than drivers from 18 to 20, according to the German Center on Addiction Problems.
It has become accepted wisdom in the United States over two decades that raising the drinking age has reduced alcohol-related traffic deaths. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates the number of lives saved since 1975 at 23,000. Alcohol remains a leading cause of traffic deaths for young people. Nearly a third of the 3,657 drivers age 15 to 20 who died in car crashes in 2003 had been drinking, the agency found.