Drinking and driving while either impaired or drunk is dangerous. Drivers with high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) are at much greater risk of traffic crashes. Thus more injuries and deaths.
- The Problem
- Possible Preventions
- Often Overlooked
I. The Problem: Drinking and Driving
Every single injury and death caused by drunk driving is preventable. In fact, the proportion of alcohol-impaired driving crashes has dropped greatly over time.
But there are still far too many such crashes. So in spite of great progress, alcohol-impaired drinking and driving remains a serious problem. It tragically effects many victims and their families annually.
It’s all too easy to forget that statistics refer to real flesh and blood people. Therefore, this page is dedicated to a grandfather and his three grandchildren. They were all killed by a drunk driver. Family and friends deeply mourn their needless and tragic deaths.
II. Facts about Drinking and Driving.
However, the risk of death from drinking and driving escalates with BAC. And it does so greatly. Over two-thirds of alcohol-related traffic deaths involve a driver with a BAC over 0.15.1
High BAC drivers are more likely to be male and aged 25-35. Also, they often have a history of DWI convictions and drug abuse.
III. Possible Prevention
Possible prevention measures include these, among many others.
- License suspention or revocation.
- License plate confiscation.
- Vehicles impoundment.
- Open container bans.
- Increased penalties for drunk driving.
- Required alcohol education.
- Enforcement of seat belt laws.
- Greater use of Designated Drivers.
Solutions for Reducing Drinking and Driving.
Alcohol-impaired drinking and driving resists simple solutions. However, there are a number of actions that could contribute to reducing the problem.
- DWI courts are effective in reducing drinking and driving while intoxicated. They work with hard-core repeat offenders. They do so by treating alcohol addiction. The recidivism or failure rate of DWI and DUI courts is very low.24
- The single most effective measure to reduce drunk driving is automatic license revocation.2
- Automatic license revocation along with required jail appears to be even more effective.3
- Confiscating license plates.4
- Requiring ignition interlock devices. They prevent persons with alcohol on their breath from starting a vehicle.5
- Vehicle impoundment.6
- Expanding alcohol server training programs.7
- Using social norms programs. They correct the false belief that most people sometimes drive under the influence of alcohol.8
- Requiring alcohol testing in fatal crashes. That would help the prosecution of drunk drivers.9
Technological improvements include raised lane markers, which are easier to see. They also make a startling sound when a tire wanders over them. Similarly, corrugations along the edges of roads make a sound when driven over. This alerts inattentive drivers.
Other cost-effective improvements can save lives. They include wider roads, improved street and highway lighting and break-away sign posts.
Improvements in vehicles include brake lights at eye level, door crash bars, and many computer-assisted features.
Promising but Inadequately Evaluated Measures.
- Distinctive license plate marking for an alcohol offense.10
- Bans on open containers in vehicles.11 (Not all states have these.)12
- Tiered penalties based on BAC level.13 Typically used for speeding.
- Restricted nighttime driving by young people. This appears to be effective in those states with such restrictions.14
- Electronically monitoring of repeat DWI offenders.15
- Involve drivers in reporting drunk drivers. They can dial 911 on their cell phones. See Help Police Stop Drunken Drivers.
- Educate prospective drivers on alcohol and driving. Then test knowledge on driver’s exams.
We need to evaluate all of these very promising measures. This would determine their effectiveness.
Measures of Little or No Value.
- Jail or prison sentences for alcohol offenses. This is a popular policy. However, it’s of little value in deterring high BAC drivers.16 In short, it appears that we can’t “jail our way out of the problem.”17
- The perception of swift and certain punishment is more important than severity.18 Stricter laws and large fines appear to have little deterrent effect.19
- Increasing the cost of alcohol would have virtually no impact on reducing drunk driving.20 Both research and common sense suggest this. Cost doesn’t deter heavy drinkers. And most minors don’t buy their drinks.
The Good News
We can do it! While we must do even more to reduce drunk driving, we have already accomplished a great deal.
The number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities per 100,000 population has dropped over two-thirds since 1982. Other measures of the problem are similar. So we’re clearly winning the battle against alcohol-related traffic deaths.
We can and must do even better.
Above all, never drive if you, or anyone else, thinks that you may have had too much to drink. And don’t let anyone else. That includes reporting drivers who appear drunk. It’s always safest not to drink and drive. So use a Designated Driver.
IV. Often Overlooked
People well know the dangers of drinking and driving. But often overlooked are two other major traffic safety problems. Drugged driving is one. While the other is distracted driving. These may now account for even more deaths than drunk driving.
Studies have looked at drivers stopped for erratic driving, involved in a crash, or killed in a crash. Over one-third had at least one drug in their bodies. In addition, many were under the influence of both drugs and alcohol.21
Surveys report a large increase in drugged drivers over a seven year period. (On the other hand, those with alcohol in their blood dropped by almost one-third during the period.)22
At any moment during daylight, about 660,000 drivers in the U.S. are using an electronic device. A total of 421,000 people in a recent year were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver. Thousands died.23 And the problem continues to get worse.
V. Resources: Drinking and Driving
Drug-Impaired Driving. Hauppauge, N.Y.: 2020.
Harper, A. Drunk Driving: Existing Programs. Platteville: U Wisconsin, 2019.
Nat Cent Victims Crime. Driving Under the Influence. Wash: The Cent, 2020.
Patterson, M. Tears for Tyler. (A victim.) Castaic, CA: Genius, 2020.
Wicklund, C. Alternatives to Alcohol-Impaired Driving. Ottawa: Traff Inj Res Found, 2018.
Cooper, B. et al. Drink, death, and driving. Do blood alcohol content limit reductions improve road safety? Health Econ, 2020, 29(7), 841-847.
- Nat Acad Sci. Getting to Zero Alcohol-impaired Driving Fatalities. Wash: The Acad, 2018.
- Nat High Safe Admin (NHTSA) Countermeasures That Work – Alcohol-Impaired Driving. Wash: NITSA, 2021.
- CDC. License Plate Impoundment.
- Countermeasures That Work – Alcohol-Impaired Driving. Wash: 2021.
- NHTSA. Evaluation Of Vehicle Impoundment.
- Fell, J. Approaches for Reducing Alcohol-Impaired Driving. Ch in Jones, A. et al (eds). Alcohol, Drugs, and Impaired Driving. Boca Raton: CRC, 2020.
- Pribble, J., et al. A social norms strategy to reduce impaired driving. Ann Emerg Med, 2006, 48(6), 739.
- Brady, J., et al. Effectiveness of mandatory alcohol testing programs. Am J Epid, 2009, 170(6), 775-82.
- NHTSA. Vehicle and License Plate Sanctions. DOT HS 810 880. 2018.
- Cathey, J. The Effects of Alcohol Regulation and Legislation. U. Tenn, 2009.
- Nat. Conf. State Leg. Open Container and Open Consumption of Alcohol State Statutes. Washington: NCSL, 2013.
- Voas, R. and Fisher, D. Court Procedures for Handling Intoxicated Drivers.
- Monash U. Night Driving Restriction Reduces Young Driver Crashes. 2015.
- Voas and Fisher, ibid.
- Homel, R. Policing and Punishing the Drinking Driver.
- Lock ‘Em Up. Is Jail Really the Best Deterrent to Drunk Driving? Am Add Cent, 2020.
- Wright, N. and Lee, L. Alcohol-related traffic laws and drunk-driving fatal accidents. Acc Anal Prev, 2021,161.
- McClelland, R. and Iselin, J. State Alcohol Excise Taxes May Have Little Effect on Drunk Driving Fatalities.Wash: TPI, 2017.
- NIDA. Drugged Driving.
- NHTSA. Traffic Safety Facts Research Note. DOT 812 118, 2015.
- StopDistractions.org. Also Bock, O. et al. Distracting tasks have persisting effects on drivers’ braking performance. Acc Anal Prev, 2021, 161.
- Petrucci, C. DWI Courts. Ch 3 in Ahlin, E. and Douds, A. (eds.) Taking Problem-solving Courts to Scale. Lanham: Lexington, 2021, 53-72.