Driving drunk or under the influence is a criminal offense in all states.
The NHTSA reports that almost 29 people die daily in America due to drunk driving. That amounted to one person dead every 50 minutes in 2016. While drunk driving deaths have fallen by ⅓ in the last 30 years, drunk driving crashes still claim at least 10,000 lives per year. The most recent statistics from 2010 state that the deaths and damages from drunk driving led to a loss of $44 billion that year.
Alcohol reduces the ability of the brain, impairs thinking, muscle coordination and reasoning. All of these functions are vital to driving a vehicle safely. For this reason, it is important that people never drink and drive.
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The Basic Problem of Drinking and Driving
As we drink alcohol, the negative effects on the central nervous system rise. Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream directly through the small intestine and stomach. It quickly passes into the blood, and it accumulates until the liver metabolizes it.
The level of alcohol in the blood is measured by the weight of the substance in a certain amount of blood. This is known as blood alcohol concentration or BAC. With a BAC of .08 grams of alcohol per deciliter, the risk of a crash rises dramatically. Because of the higher risk of a crash with .08% BAC, it is illegal to drive with this level in all 50 states. But remember that even a small amount of alcohol in the blood can affect your ability to drive.
Plus, you can be prosecuted for causing an accident while intoxicated even if your BAC was below the legal limit. In 2016, more than 2000 people died in drunk driving accidents where the drivers had a BAC that was below .08%.
It is important to remember that men and women metabolize alcohol differently due to size, weight and other factors. Women generally can become legally intoxicated faster than men, as the image below illustrates.
If you are convicted of drunk driving, you may have to do jail time, pay fines, pay higher insurance rates and more. Many people who have a DUI on their record have trouble finding employment and getting a college loan. If you injure or kill someone in a drunk driving accident, you may have a felony on your record for life that will make finding work very difficult in some situations.
Why Drinking and Driving Is Dangerous
Alcohol is a type of depressant that slows down the functions of the central nervous system. This means your normal brain functions are slowed, and you are unable to perform routine tasks critical to driving normally. Alcohol consumption has a dramatic effect on your information processing skills or cognitive skills. It also reduces your hand-eye coordination, known as psychomotor skills.
Drinking alcohol before you drive greatly enhances the chance of a serious or fatal car accident. The more alcohol you consume, the more likely it is that you will have an accident. When you drink, most of the skills and abilities that are required for safe driving, including judgment, concentration, coordination, comprehension, visual acuity and reaction time, are seriously compromised.
Drunk Driving By the Numbers
If you ever have thought about drinking and driving, hopefully the statistics detailed below will make you think twice.
- In 2016, 10,497 people were killed in DUI crashes, and 290,000 were injured.
- Every day, approximately 800 people in the United States are injured in a drunk driving accident.
- Someone is injured in a drunk driving crash every two minutes.
- About 25% of car accidents with teenagers involve an underage drinking driver.
- In 2014, 16% of all drivers who were in fatal accidents during the week were intoxicated, compared to 29% on Friday and Saturday night.
- In the US, the number of DUI deaths has been cut by 50% since 1980, largely through driver education and public service announcements.
- 57% of drivers who were fatally injured had alcohol or drugs in their system and 17% had both.
- Two out of three people on average in the US will be involved in a drunk driving accident in their lives.
- In 2014, 10 million Americans reported driving under the influence of illegal drugs in the last year.
- Americans drank too much and drove 121 million times in the last year. This is more than 300,000 incidents of drinking and driving each day.
- In fatal car accidents in 2014, the largest percentage of drunk drivers were those from 21 to 24, 30% of all accidents.
- Drunk driving in fatal accidents in 2014 was four times higher at night than during the day time - 34% vs. 9%.
- Drunk driving costs each American adult at least $500 per year.
Below is an illustration of the number of DUI arrests in 2013 per 10,000 drivers in each state. States with the highest number of DUI arrests include Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona and Colorado.
Who Is Drinking and Driving?
According to the CDC, drivers from 21 to 24 are the most likely to drink and drive. Generally, younger drivers are more likely to take risks with drinking and driving because the young tend to think that nothing bad can happen to them.
However, the CDC also finds that the percentage of high school teenagers who drink and drive has dropped by 51% since 1991. Still, almost one million high school teenagers drank and drove in 2011. Teen drivers are still more likely than adult drivers to be in a fatal DUI accident.
Also, 85% of teenagers in high school who reported drinking and driving in the past 30 days also reported that they binge drink; this is defined as having five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours. And, one in five teen drivers involved in fatal accidents had at least some alcohol in their system in 2010. More than 80% of these drivers had a BAC that was higher than the legal limit for adults.
Men are more likely to be involved in drunk driving accidents, according to the NHTSA. In 2016, 21% of men were drunk in fatal accidents, compared to 14% of women.
Solutions for Drinking and Driving
There are simple things all of us can do to reduce drinking and driving in our personal lives:
- If you plan to drink, make plans for not driving. Plan a ride home before you go to a bar or anywhere you will be drinking. With Uber and Lyft available in so many cities today, there really is no excuse for getting behind the wheel after you have been drinking.
- If you drink any amount of alcohol, do not drive. Even if your BAC is well under the limit, your judgement and coordination can be impaired. And if you are in an accident, you still can be charged with drunk driving even if you are under the legal limit for your state.
- If you have been drinking and do not have a ride home, you need to call a taxi or a ride service to get home safe. The NHTSA has a SaferRide app that you can use on your cell phone to call a family member or friend for a ride. It will pinpoint your exact location and help you to arrange to be picked up.
- If you have a party or event where alcohol is served, be sure that every guest has a safe ride home. Some states will allow the person who provided alcohol at an event to be sued in a personal injury action if injury or death was involved in a drunk driving accident.
How States Rate in Fighting Drinking and Driving
Mothers Against Drunk Driving or MADD recently states on how their state laws stack up against drunk driving. The organization measured states by the following categories:
- Conducting sobriety checkpoints
- Requiring ignition interlock devices for all DUI offenders with a .08% or higher BAC
- Administratively revoking driver’s licenses after arrest for DUI or DWI
- Making higher penalties for those who drink and drive with minors in the vehicle
- Adopting new penalties and expediting criminal warrants for possible drunk drivers who refuse to a take a sobriety test
According to the above criteria, these states received a 4.5 out of 5.0 rating:
- West Virginia
States that scored the lowest, just 1.5 out of 5.0, were:
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
State Penalties for Drinking and Driving
Currently, all states but Utah define drunk driving as having a BAC at 0.08 percent or higher. Specific laws and penalties for drinking and driving vary widely by state. As of the end of 2018, the BAC for drunk driving in Utah will be reduced to 0.05 percent. Below is more information about DUI laws in other states.
- 48 states have increased the penalties in recent years for drivers who have a BAC above .08 percent.
- 42 states and Washington DC have administrative license suspensions for the first DUI.
- All states have an ignition interlock system program. Judges can require some or all convicted drunk drivers to install an interlock device on their vehicle that will disable the engine if alcohol is detected on their breath. Twenty four states have made ignition interlocks mandatory for all convicted drunk drivers, including first time offenders.
This chart summarizes drunk driving penalties by state as of 2010:
Spreading Information Is Key
One of the reasons that drunk driving and drunk driving accidents have fallen by ⅓ in the last 30 years is the message has gotten out: Drunk driving kills thousands of people every year. Governments, public safety organizations, parents and students all have been effective working together to spread the message of the dangers of drinking and getting behind the wheel.
One of the most memorable public service messages about drunk driving began in 1983 by the National Ad Council: Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk. Since the program was launched in 1983, almost 70% of Americans surveyed stated they have tried to prevent someone from drinking and driving. The National Ad Council has run a similar public service advertisement that read: Drinking and driving can kill a friendship.
Hopefully continuing efforts by all stakeholders in the United States will help to reduce drinking and driving injuries and deaths even lower. Together, great progress has been made, but more can be done.
Criminal Defense Assistance
If you or a loved one has been injured by a drunk driver, or you lost a loved one to a drunk driver, you have legal options available.
- Drunk Driving. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drunk-driving
- Impaired Driving Laws by State. (n.d.). https://www.ghsa.org/state-laws/issues/alcohol%20impaired%20driving
- Drunk Driving Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.madd.org/statistics/
- Driving While Impaired. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/driving-while-impaired-alcohol-and-drugs
- MADD Rates Every State’s Drunk Driving Laws. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.madd.org/blog/press-release/madd-rates-every-states-drunk-driving-laws-2/