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Drunk Driving


Alcohol is a major factor in traffic accidents. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there was an alcohol-impaired traffic fatality every 52 minutes in 2013.

Alcohol-impaired crashes are those that involve at least one driver or a motorcycle operator with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or above, the legal definition of drunk driving. According to NHTSA, 10,076 people died in alcohol-impaired crashes in 2013, down 2.5 percent from 10,336 in 2012. In 2013 alcohol-impaired crash fatalities accounted for 31 percent of all crash fatalities, the same proportion as in 2012.

The definition of drunk driving is consistent throughout the United States. All states and the District of Columbia define impairment as driving with a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) at or above 0.08 percent. In addition, they all have zero tolerance laws prohibiting drivers under the age of 21 from drinking and driving. Generally the BAC in these cases is 0.02 percent.

Anti-drunk-driving campaigns especially target drivers under the age of 21, repeat offenders and 21-to 34-year-olds, the age group that is responsible for more alcohol-related fatal crashes than any other. Young drivers are those least responsive to arguments against drunk driving, according to NHTSA.

To make sellers and servers of liquor more careful about to whom and how they serve drinks, 42 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws or have case law holding commercial liquor servers legally liable for the damage, injuries and deaths a drunk driver causes. Thirty-nine states have enacted laws or have case law that permit social hosts who serve liquor to people who subsequently are involved in crashes to be held liable for any injury or death. (See chart below and Background.)


Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates that the 10,076 alcohol-impaired fatalities in 2013 accounted for about one out of three highway deaths on U.S. roads.

As part of its program to address drunk driving, NHTSA worked with the National Center for DWI Courts to help develop new alcohol ignition interlock guidelines, which were released in July 2013. Ignition interlock systems require drivers to blow into a breathalyzer-like device to ensure the individual is sober before allowing the vehicle to start. The new guidelines will help familiarize courts that adjudicate “driving while intoxicated” cases about ignition interlock systems.

In July 2012 President Obama signed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP 21, a bill to reauthorize federal highway funds and highway safety construction programs. Among other improvements for highway safety, the bill launched a new incentive grant program to reward states that adopt ignition interlock programs for all offenders, including first offenders. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said that people convicted of drunk driving for the first time are less likely to reoffend if they are compelled to install ignition interlocks. The IIHS cited a study conducted in Washington State that found that after the state included first offenders in its interlock law, the recidivism rate for these offenders fell by 12 percent. Researchers said that only about one-third of offenders went through with the interlock installation. If all of them had, the recidivism rate for first offenders would have fallen by nearly half.

In December 2012 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that all first-offender alcohol-impaired drivers are required to have ignition interlocks installed on their personal vehicles. The NTSB issued the recommendation after finding in its study on wrong-way driving crashes that alcohol-impaired drivers are the leading cause of these collisions.

Drunk Driving by Gender: A NHTSA study showed an increasing trend among women driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). NHTSA found that from 2007 to 2008 the number of impaired women drivers involved in fatal crashes increased in 10 states and remained flat in five states, despite an overall decline of 9 percent in all drunk driver crashes during the same period. The study confirms FBI statistics showing that arrests for women driving under the influence increased by nearly 30 percent over the 10-year period from 1998 to 2007. Over that same decade, DUI arrests for men decreased by 7.5 percent, although the total number of men arrested during the period outstripped women by about four to one.

Latest NHTSA data show the increase in the proportion of alcohol-impaired driving by women. In 2004, 12 percent of female drivers involved in fatal crashes (1,875 drivers) had a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or above, the legal definition of drunk driving. By 2013, 15 percent of female drivers involved in fatal crashes (1,657 drivers) were alcohol impaired. In comparison, 24 percent of male drivers involved in fatal crashed were alcohol impaired in 2004 and by 2013 that proportion fell slightly to 23 percent.

Drunk Driving by Age: According to data from NHTSA, in 2013 the percentage of drivers in fatal crashes who were alcohol impaired was highest for 21 to 24 year old drivers, at 33 percent, followed by 25 to 34 year old drivers, at 29 percent, and 35 to 44 year old drivers, at 24 percent. The percentage of alcohol-impaired drivers in fatal crashes was 20 percent for 45 to 54 year olds, 17 percent of 16 to 20 year olds, 14 percent for 55 to 64 year olds, 8 percent for 65 to 74 year olds and 5 percent for drivers over the age of 74.

Drunk Driving by Vehicle Type: NHTSA data for 2013 show that 27 percent of motorcycle drivers involved in fatal crashes were alcohol impaired, compared with 23 percent of passenger car drivers and 21 percent of light truck drivers. Only 2 percent of large-truck drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2013 were alcohol impaired.

Social Host Liability: The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in February 2012 that social hosts could be held liable for off-premise injury to people caused by the drunk driving of a guest only if the host served alcohol or made it available. People who host “bring your own” parties are free from liability, even if the guest is underage. The court rejected an attempt by the parents of an injured 16-year-old to sue a party’s 18-year old host. The younger person suffered injuries in a crash in a car driven by someone who brought his own alcohol to the party. At issue was the fact that the driver, not the party host, supplied the liquor. Although the lawsuit contended that the host should be found negligent for allowing the driver to drink at her home, the court said that earlier rulings showed that hosts can’t be responsible for their guests’ drinking if they don’t control the supply of alcohol. Massachusetts law and court cases have held social hosts liable if they supply alcohol.

Also in February 2012 the New Mexico Supreme Court said that circumstantial evidence of a driver’s intoxication was sufficient to support a jury finding that the driver was intoxicated, overruling a decision in a 2004 case. Evidence presented in the earlier trial showed that a driver who struck and killed a motorcyclist had a 0.09 percent blood alcohol content five hours after the crash. The owners of the gas station where the driver worked and consumed a number of beers bought at the gas station pleaded ignorance of the driver’s condition. The court ruled that the blood test results were enough to prove that the driver was intoxicated. The ruling holds liquor sellers responsible for liability where evidence is available under the existing dram shop law.

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