When it comes to drinking and driving, most experts are unequivocal: Behind the wheel, no level of intoxication is acceptable. In reality, however, Americans regularly gauge their own capacity to drive after drinking, often with disastrous results. Every year, countless drivers misjudge their own sobriety, leading to severe legal consequences and thousands of lost lives. Complicating matters further, some advocates claim that current legal limits are insufficient. While driving with a blood alcohol content above 0.08 percent is illegal in all 50 states, researchers say impairment begins at much lower levels.
We set out to scrutinize BAC data from drivers involved in fatal accidents, analyzing various degrees of intoxication in deadly crashes. To do so, we utilized data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a comprehensive database of accidents that culminate in deaths. Our findings reveal just how inebriated drunk drivers tend to be when they cause fatal crashes, exploring both extreme and borderline cases. Additionally, we present geographical contrasts in drunk driving data, showing which states struggle intensely with this issue. For a detailed examination of drunk driving’s deadly outcomes, keep reading.
In 2017, most fatal crashes involving alcohol, drivers were well above the legal limit: Eighty-three percent had a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater, the national standard established during the Clinton administration. Authorities associate this level of intoxication with serious deficits in driving ability, including problems with muscle coordination and difficulty detecting impending danger. Scarier still, 58 percent of drivers had a BAC of 0.15 percent or greater – the approximate level a 160-pound man might reach after consuming seven drinks in an hour. These data suggest that most fatal drunk driving crashes are hardly ambiguous scenarios: The majority occurs following a concentrated period of alcohol consumption.
Yet, a significant percentage of deadly accidents involving alcohol did include drivers whose BAC was below 0.08 percent. In these instances, it’s impossible to be precise about causation: Alcohol may exacerbate other risk factors on the road or have little to do with accidents’ deadly nature. However, some advocacy groups have long lobbied for a reduction in the legal driving limit, saying 0.05 percent would be a more accurate threshold for impairment. Many countries already employ this 0.05 percent standard, and Utah became the first state to do so in 2018. Opponents of this move say the lowered standard could hurt the tourism and hospitality industries, causing patrons to cut out drinking altogether.
Our findings also surfaced a stark difference among the genders: Among drivers whose BAC exceeded 0.08 percent or greater, over 80 percent were men. This finding may simply reflect the prevalence of binge drinking for men and women respectively: Experts note that binge drinking is twice as common among men. But our data also resonate with research suggesting that men are more likely than women to exhibit dangerous behaviors while intoxicated. In addition to being involved in more auto accidents while drunk, men are also much more likely to act aggressively, drown, and commit suicide after consuming alcohol.
For individuals under 21, driving with any amount of alcohol in one’s system can result in legal trouble. In fact, concerns about teenage drunk driving prompted Congress to raise the legal drinking age to 21 in 1984. Yet, among drivers aged 16 to 20 who were involved in fatal accidents in 2017, 15 percent had a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater. More concerning still, other adolescents are often in the car: One recent study found that around a third of high schoolers had accepted a ride from an intoxicated driver. For adults between the ages of 21 and 34, fatal crashes were even more likely to involve alcohol. Among this cohort, more than a quarter of accidents involved a driver over the 0.08 limit.
Across older age groups, the percentage of fatal crashes involving a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater fell steadily. For drivers 65 and older, for example, fewer than 1 in 10 crashes involved someone over the 0.08 limit. Yet, these data disguise a related risk: Older Americans frequently drive while under the influence of one or more medications. Moreover, some research indicates that elderly individuals feel the effects of alcohol more quickly and intensely than younger people, meaning even a single drink could cause problems behind the wheel.
Which states sustain the greatest loss of life due to accidents involving drivers over the legal drinking limit? Wyoming surpassed all other states in this alarming measure, with 7.6 fatalities per 100,000 residents in 2017. That figure represents an almost 39 percent change from the year prior – and not in the right direction. Conversely, South Carolina and North Dakota, the second- and third-ranked states respectively, showed modest year-over-year improvement. In the Palmetto State, local legislators and advocacy groups have advocated for tougher DUI penalties. North Dakota has emphasized greater public education instead, although authorities are unsure how much these efforts have caused fatalities to fall.
In other instances, such as in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., fatalities resulting from drivers over the legal limit spiked in 2017. In D.C., this trend is a part of a broader uptick in traffic fatalities that the city is struggling to address. It’s also worth noting that Utah has a relatively low rate of fatalities and virtually no year-over-year change at all. In light of this encouraging finding, what caused the state to enact the nation’s toughest DUI restrictions in 2018? One reason may be the Mormon church’s opposition to alcohol: Approximately two-thirds of residents and 90 percent of state lawmakers identify as Mormon, and the church has historically supported greater limits on alcohol access and consumption.
When we considered fatalities resulting from accidents involving a BAC of 0.15 percent or greater, Wyoming once again had the highest per capita rate. North Dakota and New Mexico ranked second and third, with more than four fatalities of this type per 100,000 residents. The rural landscapes of these states may contribute to these figures. Relative to urban or suburban settings, finding a cab or alternative transportation can be difficult in sparsely populated areas. Moreover, while ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft have taken off in American cities, residents of rural areas have been slow to adopt them.
Some rural states did see dramatic year-over-year improvement in this area, however. In 2017, Montana saw fatal accidents involving a BAC of 0.15 percent or greater decline by nearly 48 percent. This finding may do little to satisfy critics of the state’s drunk driving policies: Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) deemed Montana’s regulations the worst in the nation in 2018. New Hampshire, Iowa, and Alaska also saw their per capita rates drop significantly. Conversely, Washington, D.C., saw an almost 114 percentage increase in fatalities due to drivers with a BAC of 0.15 percent or greater.
We also studied the average BAC for drivers in each state who were involved in fatal crashes and above the legal limit. In this ranking, Pennsylvania emerged on top: Over-the-limit drivers in the state had a stunning average BAC of 0.2014 percent. Six other states were close behind, with an average BAC above 0.2 percent. In assessing these statistics, it’s important to consider the degree of impairment they imply. A BAC of 0.2 percent or higher is well within the range at which individuals “black out” and just a couple of drinks away from alcohol poisoning.
At the other end of our ranking, West Virginia had the lowest average BAC for drivers above the limit in fatal accidents. The state has earned plaudits from organizations like MADD for its tough approach to drunk driving, as has Maryland, which ranked fourth from the bottom. Meanwhile, second-ranked Oregon is considering strengthening its own regulations, following Utah’s lead. Lawmakers have proposed bringing the state’s legal limit down to 0.05 percent: On average, drunk drivers involved in fatal accidents in Oregon had a BAC four times higher.
Our data permit conclusions both general and specific: While drunk driving remains a threat across the country, certain places and populations seem to struggle particularly. We hope our findings reveal areas in which improvement is clearly necessary, such as in Wyoming or among male drivers. But we also wish to bring added nuance to public discussions of drunk driving, highlighting important complexities. Just because you’re below the legal limit doesn’t mean you’ll drive as safely as you would completely sober. Alcohol’s impacts can’t be reduced to a single number, so err on the side of caution whenever you’re in doubt.
Moreover, fatal accidents represent just one terrible potential outcome of alcohol abuse. Drunk driving deservedly receives much public attention, but alcohol dependence also entails other life-threatening risks. If you’re currently struggling with chemical dependency, we urge you to seek help before you encounter irreversible consequences. Delphi Behavioral Health Group offers specialized substance use treatment, with services tailored to your individual challenges. Talk to our team today to learn how we can help you build a safer and brighter path forward.
For this project, we accessed Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data along with traffic safety statistics from the NHTSA on alcohol-impaired driving to examine the impact of alcohol-related fatal accidents involving drivers with and without positive BAC levels. The most recent data available are for 2017, accessed through the FARS query system as of February of 2019.
For this project, BAC levels and effects are defined by the CDC. BAC levels were decoded and grouped based on the CDC. The legal limit refers to the lower legal limit across the United States, of 0.08% BAC. In some states, the legal BAC limit is 0.10% or greater. BAC levels of 0.94% or greater were previously grouped by FARS.
The average BAC per state was made up by averaging each alcohol test result with a BAC of 0.08% or greater. The averages for New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Alaska, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., are made up of less than 25 driver records.
Population data were taken from Census.gov.
In some cases, a FARS query may not equal the same number of records found in an NHTSA report due to a number of causes, including but not limited to weighting, updated or corrected data, and more.
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