People generally confuse alcohol-related and alcohol-caused. In short, all alcohol-caused crashes are alcohol-related. On the other hand, many alcohol-related crashes are not alcohol-caused.
Most vehicle crashes do not involve alcohol. Thus, they happen without alcohol. Of crashes that are alcohol-related, many would have occurred without alcohol,
And, of course, some accidents would not have occurred except for alcohol. Those are the crashes that are alcohol-caused.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) collects official crash statistics. It counts as ‘alcohol-related’ whenever a driver or pedestrian has a BAC as low as .01 percent. Yet that level doesn’t cause meaningful impairment.
In reality, the federal definition casts an even wider net. That’s because no evidence at all is required to class someone as having a .01 BAC level. All that’s required is the suspicion of such a level.
In some states, an officer checks a box indicating the suspicion of alcohol or drug use. If the officer suspects drug use (not alcohol use) that box is marked. However, a check in that box is later classed as an alcohol-related crash!
And what causes suspicion? Commonly, it’s an empty alcohol beverage container on the side of the road near the crash. Of course, it may have been tossed out the window of a passing vehicle. Therefore, it could be completely unrelated to the accident.
“Guestimates” Based on Other “Guestimates”
Then at the end of the year, NHTSA guesses how many alcohol-related accidents its very wide net has presumably missed. As a result it substantially increases the numbers by thousands.
These “guesstimates” are reported as “alcohol-related” crahes, deaths, etc. However, editors and others assume they’re alcohol-caused and present them as such.
This creates a politically useful public misunderstanding. The welfare, if not the survival, of public and private alcohol agencies depends largely on promoting the widespread belief that problems caused by alcohol abuse are enormous and growing.
According to the American Motorists Association (AMA), this exaggeration of drunk-driving-caused deaths causes problems. For example, it creates arbitrary legal standards, warps enforcement priorities, and economically and socially harms millions of responsible people.
The AMA says it’s time to put an end to what it believes a deliberate campaign of misinformation.
Resources: Alcohol-Related and Alcohol-Caused
Carr, P. Motor Vehicle Crash Data. Redesign of Federal Collection Efforts. NY: Nova, 2015.
Heng, K. and Vasu, A. Newspaper media reporting of motor vehicle crashes in Singapore. An opportunity lost for injury prevention education? Euro J Emer Med, 2010, 17(3), 173-6.